Going Gluten-Free in Korea (I’m trying.)

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I know some of you may not trust me as a gluten-free foodie resource in Korea. I mean, come on, I recently wrote a love letter (in the form of a blog post) to the best sandwicherie in Seoul. I’ve been known to indulge from time to time. Although, I swear I didn’t eat the suspicious PB&J sandwich pictured below. It was ‘gifted’ to me at Korea Burn this past summer and although my friend and I accepted the sustenance with gratitude, the fact that a kind soul pulled it out of his suitcase prompted us to ‘re-gift’ it to the carefree, rainbow-bearded man we met a few seconds later.

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I haven’t completely ditched gluten while teaching in Korea, but I have slowly made steps toward a healthier diet and eventually I hope to completely eliminate it. Although I do not have Celiac disease, I am sensitive to gluten and I feel much better when I avoid it (The protein gluten is primarily found in bread, pasta, cookies, pizza crust and many other foods containing wheat, barley or rye.). Before moving to Korea I was curious to learn how my diet would change and I hoped to adopt healthy habits while residing in Asia.

After a year in The Land of Kimchi, I can attest to the fact that it is possible to eat well in Korea and if you’re looking to keep away from gluten it can be done. The Gluten Free Traveler, who lived in Korea awhile back and was not gluten-free at the time, wrote “In thinking back, I could probably still eat now most of what I ate back in 2006 (in Korea).” I am not an expert and I am not as strict as I should be (Beer, I’m looking at you. We need to have a serious talk.), but here are 10 ways I have steered clear of gluten this past year. Please feel free to share your own ideas as well. Having a food allergy or sensitivity sucks, but I am here to tell you that you can live in Korea and still eat delicious and healthy food.

1) Where’s the bread?

Yes, you can find bread in Korea, but it doesn’t sneak onto every breakfast, lunch and dinner plate. Korea is rice territory, and my students won’t let me forget it. As a class warm-up activity each afternoon I ask my students what they ate for lunch at school. Almost every answer consists of rice, a vegetable (Kimchi!) and a protein. Plain rice is gluten-free – yay!

2) Bin dae dduk (빈대떡) is the bomb.

I blame my friend Barbara for my bin dae dduk obsession. During a maddening Christmas shopping rush in Namdaemun Market in December she made an executive decision to take a break from bartering for ginseng tea and Psy socks and led us into the maze of lively snack booths. We sat around one that was bustling with customers and women working to grind, mix, form and fry what I learned later was a mung bean concoction. Bin dae dduk means ‘mung bean pancake’ and is made from ground mung beans, green onions and kimchi. Here’s a recipe for those of you who are not lucky enough to be in Korea. And if you’re a kimchi lover (Who isn’t?!) try this gluten-free kimchi pancake recipe.

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3) Hire me, iHerb.com?

When I eventually leave Korea I should probably just apply for a job promoting iHerb because I’m already doing the work. I’m a bit crazy for this company and I am thankful I found them while living in Korea. I must sound like a broken record because I am constantly mentioning this website in blog posts, but iHerb’s gluten-free selection allows me to enjoy some favorites from home and it’s comforting to have a few key items in my cabinet that are clearly labeled ‘gluten-free’. When the hummus I ordered online arrived last week I excitedly opened a new package of rice crackers from iHerb.

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4) ImSil Cheese Pizza (임실치즈피자), let’s make a date.

ImSil Cheese Pizza is a chain with locations in Seoul. I have yet to try their 100% rice crust pizza but it is on my list of places to check out.

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5) Let’s do barbecue!

Korean barbecue is one of the things I will miss the most about this country. If you stick to non-marinated meats or samgyeopsal (삼겹살) you will be fine. Most of the barbecue sides are vegetable based and gluten-free, but avoid the thick sauces and soy sauce.

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6) Keep it whole. 

Although it is nice to find gluten-free baked goods and processed snacks, you also can’t go wrong with whole foods. Make sure you stick to the perimeter of the grocery store when you shop and stock up on fresh fruits and veggies.

7) Make mine a dolsot.

Bibimbap is a simple yet popular Korean dish. It consists of steamed rice, veggies, and sometimes meat. It is a great gluten-free choice and you can order it cold or hot (dolsot). I love the hot option because it comes topped with a fried egg and after mixing the ingredients together with chopsticks the hot rice that sticks to the bottom of the bowl hardens and is the most delicious (and crunchy) part of the whole experience.

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8) One shot?

Beer and I eventually will have THE TALK and break up. This needs to happen soon. It is comforting to know that Soju (Jinro Soju is a Korean vodka made entirely from sweet potatoes.) will be close by and willing to cuddle up and make me forget all about Blue Moon, my first love.

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9) Alien’s Day Out does gluten-free.

I stumbled upon Alien’s Day Out when I first arrived in Korea. Although this blog is vegan focused, its food photography makes me think that just maybe vegans know what’s up. The blogger’s creations are delicious and I do not recommend scrolling through the posts while you are hungry. I have purchased a few of her goodies at High Street Market and from time to time she also whips up gluten-free delicacies.

10) It’s fun when food is shaped like triangles.

If you’re in a rush and need a quick gluten-free snack just pop into any convenience store and grab a samgak kimbap (kimbap triangle). I’ve read that the tuna ones are safest to eat and they are a quick source of protein and energy. Here’s another recipe to check out.

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I hope you find this helpful and please comment with other gluten-free advice. I also found this card from Celiac Travel.com that can be printed and used as a tool when dining out.

Be smart. Be healthy. Don’t do too many “One shot!”s of soju. And eat your kimchi.

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