[February 14, 2006]

Vegetarian Expats Get Online Index to Restaurants in Korea

(Korea Times Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)By Reuben Staines

While it may not be obvious at a glance, meat is everywhere in Korean cuisine. From the tiny shrimps in ``kimchi'' to the ground beef lacing your ``pipimbap (rice mixed with vegetables),'' purely vegetarian dishes and restaurants are few and far between.


For vegetarian and vegan foreigners arriving here for the first time, this may initially come as a surprise. Later it is simply a frustration.

Fortunately, however, an American expat has begun an initiative that should make it a little easier for English-speaking vegetarians to find their next spot to graze.

Sonia Knapp, who first came to South Korea to teach English in 1998, set up a Web site last October indexing some 100 vegetarian restaurants and organic shops scattered around South Korea.

Knapp, a vegetarian since age five or six, said when she began searching the Internet in English for vegetarian eateries, all she came back with were ``outdated links and desperate pleas for information.''

``I found out that there was really no comprehensive information for foreigners,'' she said.

Using the basic Korean she had acquired over the years, she began searching articles in Korean and working the phone to build a database of vegetarian-friendly restaurants.

``I kept imagining a Web site _ something big and elaborate with forums and a community to share info,'' Knapp said. ``But alas the Web site fairy never came and built it for me so I realized I was on my own.''

The site she eventually built - www.freewebs.com/vegetariankorea - remains fairly basic, but Knapp hopes to add more information and features in the future. She welcomes any assistance from Web designers or enthusiastic vegetarians to improve the homepage.

Ultimately, she would like to form a non-profit organization around the site that could set up informational displays about vegetarianism at festivals and sponsor educational trips to organic farms, she said.

Knapp, who chose to live in rural Chonju for her second teaching stint here, said the popularity of vegetarianism in South Korea has increased dramatically in recent years.

``The movement has definitely grown since I was here in the late 1990s,'' she said. ``Now there are organic expos held here, vegetarian packaged `ramyon (instant noodles),' and over 100 vegetarian restaurants, including several chains.''

She believed the ``well-being'' trend among increasingly health conscious South Koreans in their 20s and 30s was one of the reasons for the shift.

However, many older Koreans still do not understand vegetarianism, she said. ``If I am in a new restaurant I usually have to run through the whole litany of things I won't eat,'' explained Knapp, who calls Boulder, Colo. home.

Knapp said she first decided to become a vegetarian because of her love for animals. The header on her Web site reads: ``Animals are our friends. Don't eat our friends.'' She was also influenced by reading ``Charlotte's Web,'' E. B. White's popular children's book about a barn spider who tries to save a pig from the slaughter.

With the exception of a brief relapse into meat-eating during her teenage years, she has remained a vegetarian ever since.

In South Korea, Knapp said she has twice been forced compromise her beliefs _ eating kimchi containing fish sauce, and a fish soup _ to avoid being rude to her hosts. Neither occasion was without regrets, however.

Knapp said she hopes her Web site will help other vegetarians and vegans hold true to their convictions when eating out in South Korea. [ZZ]

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