April 16, 2024

SEOUL — Some places call it “plant-based.” Others say “reducetarian” or “flexitarian.” The veg-curious might introduce “Meatless Mondays.” But here in South Korea, some are simply aiming for “no chunk”: Cut down on your meat consumption by avoiding obvious bits of meat but turning a blind eye to what’s less visible.

Across the developed world, as people become more conscious of the meat industry’s relatively large carbon footprint, there are movements aimed at reducing the consumption of animal products, if not becoming outright vegan.

That effort is particularly tricky in South Korea, where meat is associated with wealth and health, and where tabletop barbecuing is a way of life.

“I tried my best, even setting a cute photo of pigs as my phone wallpaper,” said Jung Jin-a, a committed animal rights activist who has been struggling to give up meat for more than a decade.

She wanted to save the planet and the animals. But she wanted sizzling pork belly, too.

“The pork and chicken are right in front of my eyes and will immediately satisfy my cravings, whereas the values I uphold by refusing meat are invisible,” said Jung, who wrote a book about her life as an “imperfect vegetarian.”

After K-pop and K-dramas, K-BBQ may well be South Korea’s best-known cultural export. The Korean method of grilling meat is beloved by diners around the world, and attracts foodie tourists. Korean food has risen as one of the most popular cuisines on TikTok and Instagram, according to a 2023 analysis of social media tags.

The Oscar-winning film “Parasite” featured grilled Korean beef with instant noodles, fueling a social media frenzy.

At home, it’s a national pastime, whether at an after-work gathering or a picnic dinner on a portable grill.

Meat has always been an aspirational meal here. It was a luxury during South Korea’s emergence from colonization and war, but after decades of rapid economic growth, meat has now taken over Korean dinner tables.

South Korea’s annual meat intake per person exceeded that of rice for the first time in 2022. It’s now 134 pounds — much lower than the annual American per capita meat consumption of 225 pounds, but up from 69 pounds two decades ago.

Now, it’s rare to walk more than two blocks in central Seoul at 7 p.m. without inhaling the aroma of grilled meat. This country of 51 million has more than 70,000 barbecue restaurants.

But some climate change activists and animal rights advocates are coming up with creative ways to question this ubiquitous carnivore culture and embrace plant-based eating.

One of the biggest challenges for aspiring vegetarians and vegans in South Korea is that they don’t know where to start.

Meat and seafood appear in some form in nearly every meal: small and sometimes incognito ingredients like tiny fermented shrimp in kimchi; minced meat in bibimbap; or seafood stock in sizzling tofu soup.

Given the pervasiveness of animal products in dishes, and a lack of awareness of vegetarian needs, it can be tricky to go meat-free at restaurants or when communally dining.

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These difficulties have given rise to the “bideong,” or “no-chunk,” approach to plant-based eating among budding vegetarians in South Korea.

For Jang Kyung-mi, bideong means making her “best effort to avoid visible chunks of meat when circumstances do not allow” eating vegetarian, especially when dining out or sharing a meal with omnivores. This approach has helped her avoid awkward questions at restaurants, like asking whether the broth is from seafood or meat stock.

A strict vegan diet, which was her initial goal three years ago, was hard to practice while living with a non-vegetarian husband and child. “We tend to be preoccupied with the extremes when going meat-free,” said the 38-year-old, who runs a zero-waste shop outside Seoul. “However, a realistic diet that we can actually sustain is more effective and meaningful.”

The “no chunk” lifestyle is an example of a big-tent approach to plant-based eating, and its accessible nature is fueling a move away from a meat-centered diet.

While just 4 percent of South Korean adults identify as vegetarians — many of them devout Buddhists, who avoid eating meat and strong-smelling plants as part of their practice — 12 percent say they are flexitarians who follow a plant-centric diet, according to a survey last year by Hankook Research, a Seoul-based pollster.

On social media, the hashtag “my veganism diary” has become popular, amplifying the voices of those trying to go meat-free and influencing a new generation of plant-centric eaters. On Instagram, South Koreans share their experience of attempting — and sometimes succeeding, but often failing — to eat vegan, and encourage others to join the challenge.

The social media trend has been a source of motivation for South Korean illustrator Kim Bo-sun. She started posting a series called “My Veganism Cartoon” on social media, in which she playfully depicts the ups and downs in her life as an “aspiring vegan.”

“I started working on these cartoons in hopes that it would inspire more imperfect vegans like myself,” she said. “I think 100 imperfect aspiring vegans are more valuable for our planet than a single perfect vegan.”

Experts say this less puritanical and more flexible approach could lower the barriers to a plant-based diet. “In an era of urgent climate risk, convincing people to cut down meat consumption even just on a part-time basis is important,” said Oh Choong-hyeon, an environmental science expert at Dongguk University in Seoul.

South Koreans’ big appetite for meat is “neither sustainable nor responsible,” he said.

The country’s economy has grown to become the world’s 13th-largest, and it is the 10th-biggest carbon polluter across the globe, according to the Global Carbon Atlas. This is because it remains dependent on heavy industry such as petrochemicals, steel and automobiles. The energy and industrial sectors are responsible for two-thirds of total emissions, followed by the transport, building and agriculture sectors.

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The Asian economic powerhouse is one of the lowest performers in the Climate Change Performance Index, which assesses the national greenhouse gas emissions, energy mix and climate policy of 63 countries and the European Union.

South Korea’s topography means that livestock is often raised in crowded factory farms, which contributes to air and water pollution, said Park Jong-moo, a bioethics expert and veterinarian.

Some companies see a huge potential market in alternative protein sources — although they concede that selling to meat-loving Koreans is no easy feat.

“Our products are delicious enough to win over not only vegetarians but also non-vegetarians who have never tried alternative meat,” said Kim Yang-hee, CEO of HN Novatech, a Korean food-tech start-up that developed the world’s first seaweed ingredient for plant-based meat alternatives.

While seaweed remains an unfamiliar ingredient in Western countries, it has been a staple of Korean and Japanese diets for hundreds of years.

Kim Yang-hee said her company’s seaweed extract makes an “accurate meat” flavor without the additives or preservatives often present in plant-based meat products. Seaweed farming, which uses only the sea, has the potential to redefine the future of protein production in an eco-friendly way, the company says. It recently launched a “meat-flavored” croquette and plans to follow up with plant-based mackerel, milk substitute from seaweed extract, and seaweed “beef” jerky.

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The government is taking notice. The Agriculture Ministry recently unveiled a plan to support the plant-based economy by establishing a dedicated studies center for plant-based meat alternatives and increasing the exportability of the products.

The country’s plant-based protein market could reach $216 million by 2026, according to estimates by the Korea Rural Economic Institute.

But there are still far more skeptics than proponents. “Saturday night means going out for pork belly and soju with friends,” said Philip Lee, a Seoul-based soccer coach who eats barbecue every weekend. Lee says he is aware of vegetarianism and supports the movement, “but I cannot see myself ever giving up meat.”

Joo Seon-tea, a professor of animal science at South Korea’s Gyeongsang National University, said South Koreans have grown “taller, healthier and happier” thanks to rising meat intake over the decades.

Joo says eating meat every day is an ideal dietary habit that contributes to a balanced diet. His vegetarian daughter once took him to a vegan restaurant where Joo tried soy meat for the first time. “It is incomprehensible to me why anyone would want to eat fake meat,” he said. “Can’t you just eat normally?”


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