Gluten Free South Korea

Eating Galbi

The amazing Seoul

As my South Korean adventures were prior to being diagnosed as celiac I didn’t plan to write a post on travelling gluten free there. That is until I received a few emails from fellow gluten free travellers who were headed there and looking for tips. They told me that my advice on staying safely gluten free in South Korea was really helpful hence my decision to write this post.

I spent the year of 2006 in Guri, just outside of Seoul, as an English teacher. I found my job on an online job board, had a quick interview over the phone with the school’s director, received my one year alien visa from London, packed my rucksack and boarded the plane to Seoul. I knew very little about what was waiting for me but I was off in search of adventure. I was 22 years old. I didn’t realise it at the time but looking back I was brave. Not everyone would have done that. I met lots of other interesting and wonderful people who did though. One of them was John 🙂

Eating is a large part of the culture in South Korea. During my year there I ate out for at least one meal every single day. In thinking back I could probably still eat now most of what I ate back in 2006. My husband and I plan to return in the near future and I am not worried about returning as a celiac. There are plenty of naturally gluten free dishes for me to enjoy.

The fact that bread does not play a large part in South Korean cuisine is great. Whereas many restaurants you visit in North & South America and Europe will serve bread on the side, this is not the case here. South Korea are all about the rice which is wonderful news for gluten free travellers. We don’t have to worry about crumbs cross contaminating everything we eat. It’s not that Koreans don’t ever eat bread it’s just nowhere near as popular as rice.

Korean Dishes

Gong- ge bap (plain rice) can be ordered anywhere so if ever get hungry and can’t find anything else, there is always rice. As the rice is made in a rice cooker there are no cross contamination issues there.

Kimchi (spicy fermented cabbage) with rice is the staple in South Korea. It can be eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner and you may find yourself eating it for all three on occasion. It’s simple, cheap, addictive and can be found anywhere and everywhere throughout the country. John and I got addicted to the stuff and we buy it whenever we can find it here in SF.

All over the country you will find Korean fast food eateries. Many are called Kimbap Chonguk (Kimbap Heaven) or Kimbap Nara (Kimbap Country) but there are various others too, all of which sell the same types of simple Korean dishes. Locals eat here, teachers eat here, everyone eats here. Everything comes with a side of kimchi and you can get anything from a bowl of plain rice (gf) to a pork tenderloin with cheese and curry sauce (not gf). You can eat in, you can take out or you can call up and have your meal delivered. It will arrive in the same metal bowl you would get when eating in and when you’ve finished eating you just leave the dirty dishes outside your door and someone will return to pick them up. Genius! You can’t visit South Korea without eating at one of these fantastic little places.

Pots of kimchi

My favourite meal in South Korea was bibimbap, a dish made from steamed rice and topped with veggies. You can order bibimbap hot or cold but in my opinion the hot (dolsot bibimbap) is by far the tastiest as it is served in a hot dish with a fried egg on top. When it arrives you have to stir everything together to avoid too much rice sticking to the bottom of the bowl but some of it always does and this is the most delicious part. Mmm! The dish can differ slightly depending on where you get it and sometimes they add meat as a topping too. Normally it’s beef. If you don’t want the beef say go-gee -opshee (without meat). The go-cho-jang (red pepper paste) which comes with it is made with wheat so be sure to ask for it without. Gochojang opshee (without red pepper paste)

Kimbap (Korean style sushi roll) is everywhere in South Korea. An older Korean woman is usually the one making it and you always find it at the Korean fast food eateries I mentioned above. The basic kimbap is freshly made from rice, seaweed, veggies, immitation crab and processed ham. The immitation crab meat contains wheat and the processed ham may contain gluten so ask for yours to be made without these two things. As you can almost always watch your kimbap being prepared you don’t have to worry about cross contamination. Kimbap tastes great either on it’s own or topped with kimchi. Since it’s made right in front of you it’s still warm if you eat it straight away. This was my lunch almost every day. Sometimes I would even get two. Yum-my!

Korean barbeque is very popular. My memories of South Korea take me back to numerous late nights spent around the grill with a bunch of new friends, toasting with shots of soju (Korean rice wine). Sam gap sal & Oh gap sal (3 layers of fat & 5 layers of fat) are pork and taste a lot better than they sound. Galbi sal is beef and my favourite. It is the least fatty of the three and in my opinion tastes the best. At these barbeque restaurants you order the meat you want and they bring it over to your table/grill where you then cook it yourself. The meat is served with kimchi and vegetables so nothing gluten containing there. Just make sure they don’t marinade the meat in anything that could be gluten containing but most of the time they don’t and it’s just straight up delicious meat. You could always ask your waiter to clean your grill before beginning your meal just in case but since you ( and others before you) will most likely only be eating meat, veggies, kimchi and rice you should be fine. Delicious!

If you like sushi it’s everywhere in South Korea. There are hundreds of sushi restaurants for either eating in or take out and most of them are fairly priced. I must have eaten at over 20 different sushi restaurants during my year there! You can also buy pre-made (with each piece of nigiri pre-wrapped) sushi at the grocery store chain, Lotte Mart. I ate this so many times as I lived right next to one of these supermarkets. I would doubt that any of the restaurants there offer gluten free soy sauce so I would recommend bringing your own, going without or eating it with kimchi instead!

Tasty sushi

One of many fruit markets

Fruit is plentiful and delicious in South Korea. Almost everywhere you walk you will find fruit markets or fruit trucks selling whatever is in season. I was addicted to korean melons, satsumas and persimmons. Picking up a fruity snack when you’re out and about should be simple and inexpensive.

If you’re considering visiting South Korea don’t worry that your gluten free diet will prevent you from exploring this wonderful country. There are plenty of naturally gluten free and extremely delicious dishes awaiting you. Noribang (Korean karaoke) is awaiting you too and it’s probably the most fun night out ever!

Kimchi on the grill

Kimbap

Tips for travelling gluten free in South Korea

  • Cross contamination is of course going to be an issue in some places and it will be difficult to explain this (even in good Korean) so try to eat at restaurants selling naturally gluten free meals such as barbeque, sushi, kimbap. bibimbap, etc.
  • It’s definitely a good idea to learn a few words/phrases to help you on your search for safe food. Learning the Korean alphabet and some basics are far easier than you would think (I’m certainly no language expert and could have pretty decent conversations with cab drivers nearing the end of my year there) and if words don’t cut it don’t be afraid to use hand gestures and point to things that you do or do not want. This often worked for me.
  • When going for Korean barbeque ask your server to clean your grill before you get started. As it tends to be simply meat, veggies and kimchi which are cooked on these grills there shouldn’t be a problem but it never hurts to be extra careful.
  • If in doubt, kimchi and rice. It’s everywhere and it’s cheap and fast so you won’t go hungry.
  • In some restaurants they put barley in their water so be cautious and make sure it’s just plain water before drinking it.
  • Visit Noribang (Korean karaoke) as much as possible. It’s addictive…you’ve been warned! 🙂

John and I at Noribang

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Comments

  • Great writeup. You mention the need to bring GF soy sauce for sushi … I wonder if soy sauce might not show up as a not-obvious ingredient in other dishes as well. How do you say, “Does it contain any soy sauce?” in Korean? 🙂

    Another concern I have with Korean food is MSG — as it might still be made from wheat. If I recall correctly, the commercially produced kimchi I would get in the USA years ago was made with MSG.

  • Thanks! Soy sauce isn’t normally an ingredient found in too many Korean dishes and certainly not in the naturally gluten free dishes I mentioned. It is more often used on the side for dipping and therefore easy to avoid.
    ‘Ganjang’ is soy sauce so ‘Ganjang opshee’ is without soy sauce. 🙂

    As for MSG..I’m not 100% sure how often it’s used in Korean cuisine. I will need to do a little more research on this. The kimchi I eat here in the US is King’s and contains no MSG. It’s made from only cabbage, garlic, onion, pepper, sugar, salt, paprika and ginger…yummy!

  • I just checked the King’s website, and it’s nice to see that it’s available at mainstream markets (Safeway, WalMart (!), etc.). The homepage also says that their stuff is GF and w/o MSG. Awesome.

    There’s a blurb on Sunja Kimchi’s website that says, “Unlike commercial kimchi, Sunja’s kimchi adds no sugar, no MSG or fish extracts and is vegan and vegetarian.”

    Apparently I wasn’t buying either King’s or Sunja’s. 🙂

  • I traveled for two weeks in South Korea in 2008. My Korean hostess was wonderful and really researched gluten free cooking. She was so terrified of me getting sick potentially that when in restaurants I mostly ate the grilled fish (only with a little sesame oil) and seaweed and rice. There were certain side dishes that were fine, many that were not. She found a great bakery in Anyang City that was a gluten free bakery!!! I had the best breads, croissants, and other goodies. I have no idea what the name of it was and have tried to find it on line to no avail. Before departing Korea, I walked to the bakery which was closed and knocked on the door. They opened the door, and I hand motioned that I was flying to the USA that morning and could I buy bread to take home. They eventually understood me and invited me in. I bought four bags of goodies, returned to my hotel, threw out my clothes to make room in my luggage and surprised my celiac children with wonderful goodies. The breads were so light, very different than my GF breads, I just wished I knew the name of the bakery to post here.

  • Thank you so much for this blog! As a recently diagnosed coeliac i am still in the panic stages with the rampant paranoia that gluten is in absolutely everything!

    I am moving to South Korea in a few weeks for a year and I was slightly concerned but now I feel good about it! I had visions that I would be eating lettuce for a year! I am looking forward to trying all the dishes you have mentioned and will use this as a guide! 🙂 🙂

  • That’s great, Mary! Will you be teaching there? I look forward to hearing how you get on. Happy travels! 😀

  • One thing I don’t really get is the Kimchi. The red pepper paste that is used to ferment the veggies is almost always made with barley malt powder. I know because I have made it myself from scratch before I found out about my Celiac.

  • Kimchi is made with fish sauce which can contain wheat or hydroxided vegetable protein (derived from gluten). Is th amount in kimchi so low that you consider it negligible?

  • I just wanted to let people know that most of the chilli sauces (gochujjang) is made with wheat flour. So if you’re hyper sensitive it’s best to avoid anything with a red soup or spicy red sauce.

  • Just reading this post as I got off the plane in Seoul from Bangkok. Am stuck here for a few hours before heading to Toronto. Will stop in at the first place that has bibimbap!

  • Good luck, Marley!!

  • Thank you for your tips! I am going to Seoul Soon for our 25 wedding anniversary. My husband is adopted from Korea. I have been so nervous about unexpectedly eating food with gluten and msg and ruining a day or two of our trip. Also worried about seeming rude to servers. I want to show respect and appreciation for our food and not embarrass my husband with my severe gluten and dairy intolerances. We will be eating all of our meals out for a week. I will bring my own gf soy sauce and snacks to supplement. I wonder if it has gotten better in the last couple years with education
    / knowledge in food service there?

  • I’m sorry to tell you all, there’s no asian food you can eat safely. I spent a lot of time in asia and have given up on anything but cooking myself. For instance, Kimchi is often made with a chili/wheat paste, because it ferments well. All sauces purchased from china (common in Korea) are subject to containing wheat and do not list it on the ingredients. While it’s true that most food is likely safe to eat, there’s no way to find out. It’s rude to question what’s in food in Asia. If you’ve experienced no problems eating Korean food, it’s because you haven’t reached the 10ppm level yet. Keep it up and you will.

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