There is nothing quite like those moments where you find yourself somewhere so foreign it reminds you: I’m a pretty good traveler, but I’m not that good.
Spending a quick weekend in Seoul, Korea reminded me of the limits of play-it-by-ear travel, particularly as a vegetarian in a carnivore’s paradise . Not in a negative way… more in an I’ve never been anywhere quite like this way.
Admittedly, I do not speak a word of the language (no limping by on “Dos cervesas, por favor” here), cannot read the script, arrived ignorant of most social conventions, have a dietary preference that limits much of the cuisine, and failed to research one helpful scrap of info about my new surrounds. So what to do upon arrival? Explore of course!
First stop… lunch.
Generally speaking, my idea of planning a day of inner-city exploration used to begin and end with grabbing a map on the way out the hotel door. That way, when I inevitably end up at some unknown location at the corner of Walk and Don’t Walk, post happy-hour with a dead phone battery, out comes the map and I’m on my way back to the hotel.
Years of traveling with my favourite travel buddy, the ever-inspired and ever-organized Sylvie, have instilled in me the virtue of including some well vetted pit-stops dotted along the city map. After all, a city’s gems or great whole-food and veggie friendly stops are not always easily stumbled upon. Alas, a creature reverts to its habits and I was flying solo this weekend.
Opting to find a quick lunch on the go while exploring, I hit the local farmer’s markets near the hotel to see what was on offer. In 2015, the fourth anniversary of Seoul Farmer’s Markets, some 340 opened in parks and urban spaces around Seoul so they are rather easy to find.
As it turns out, onions and garlic are both very popular at Seoul farmer’s markets… I’ve never seen so many in one place! Unfortunately, raw onions aren’t the best as a quick road-side lunch (unless of course you are former Australian PM Tony Abbott).
Ginger, seaweed, and various mystery roots were all in high demand but not quite what I had in mind for my mid-day meal. I’ll spare you the photos of the fish market, but suffice to say that didn’t do the trick either. Learning on the fly, I discovered that vegetarians seeking a grab-and-go lunch were going to be underserved at the farmer’s market I happened upon, despite it being several blocks square. The street food, some cooked and some less-so, looked decidedly unsafe for a plant-based diet, and without a translator I opted to trust my instincts. If I could only read the signs, I would have made note to try one of the other 339 farmer’s markets the next time I am in town.
Resigned, I ducked into the shopping mall across the street to smile and point to the first thing that said vegetarian, a strawberry banana smoothie.
Fuelled up by a very utilitarian beverage, I consulted my map and headed off towards Changdeokgung Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for some good old fashioned sight seeing. Dating back to the 1400’s, it is one of the Five Grand Palace’s built by the Joseon dynasty and a stunning example of far east architecture. Lunch may not have been a home run, but the day’s adventure certainly was.
Readers, where should I have gone to find a delicious vegetarian lunch in Seoul? Let me know below!
Next time, I’ll be sure to bring Sylvie along, do my homework, and plan more than 24 hours to look around. The energy of Seoul was incredible; there is so much to see. I look forward to a return visit so we can share a full Sails & Spices experience with you.
Signing off for now, but as always… travel safe out there and heed all warning signs: