Editor’s Note: This guide is merely a starting point for travelers with gluten sensitivities. While we have gathered resources and expert interviews to be as helpful and accurate as possible, we highly recommend that you consult a medical professional before traveling to Korea if you are living with celiac disease or any level of intolerance that requires medical attention should you ingest gluten. If gluten cross-contamination is a concern, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to eat safely in Korean restaurants.
One of the chief pleasures of exploring new territory is tasting local cuisine, but for those with food allergies, the task of finding safe foods can zap the pleasure out of eating abroad. In Korea, finding gluten free foods is challenging, to be sure. Because the number of known gluten allergies is much lower among the local population than it is in Western countries, overall awareness is also minimal.
A Brief History of Gluten in Korea
The traditional Korean diet includes large amounts of fish, vegetables, rice and barley and uses fermentation techniques to preserve and enhance foods. Most Korean dishes contain gochujang (spicy red pepper paste), doenjang (fermented soybean paste) and ganjang (soy sauce) and original recipes of these three fundamental sauces did not include wheat. As far back as the Goguryeo Period from 37 BC to 668 AD, soy sauce and doenjang in Korea were traditionally made inside the home with soybeans and salt water and took months from start to finish. Over the last century, however, imported wheat has altered recipes and production methods of these and other staple Korean foods. Today even some kimchi is thickened with wheat flour.
Methods of soy sauce production, for instance, evolved tremendously during the Japanese Occupation Era. The Japanese method involved the addition of wheat grains to the steamed soybeans at the initial stage of production, a practice that stuck well after Korea gained independence in 1945. These days, soy sauce is almost never brewed at home. Instead, the majority of soy sauce is industrially-produced and contains gluten (Cwiertka, 2012).
Newer Korean foods sprouted from days of war and postwar scarcity, necessitating the improvisation of instant foods leftover from US army bases. Such is the case with buddae jjiggae, which translates to “army base stew,” a soup made with Spam, hot dogs and kimchi, often topped with sliced cheese and canned beans.
Rice shortages required widespread ingredient substitutions for foods customarily made with rice, such as tteok (rice cake) and makgeolli (rice ale). Following the Korean War, the government effected measures to increase the consumption of wheat in place of rice. The proliferation of bakeries and instant ramyeon, for example, began when the Ministry of Agriculture called for every province to install at least one bakery and one ramyeon factory (Cwiertka, 2012).
With South Korea’s rapid industrialization came more changes in its culinary landscape. Fast food, fried chicken and pizza are easy to find in big cities, small towns and freeway rest stops in between, due largely in part to Western influence and higher disposable income. Children today are growing up in an entirely different environment than people of earlier generations, with more food options and less time, and are more inclined to consume quick foods, many of which contain gluten. Though gluten is not an ingredient found in traditional Korean cuisine, it has become undeniably entrenched in the modern Korean diet.
Eating Gluten Free Today
Restaurants serving Korean food cannot modify menu items to be gluten free; to do so would compromise the integrity of the dish, as sauces and stocks are made in advance and cannot be altered upon request. The most effective way to travel in Korea with a gluten intolerance is to eat fresh, raw produce and plain, steamed rice. The second best way is to prepare, learn and approach the challenge with an understanding of why it is so difficult to eat gluten free in Korea. We travel to learn, to emerge better than we came and to enliven our senses. To see clusters of skyscrapers rising against ancient palaces that have been repeatedly destroyed and restored is to see the resilience and tenacity that is the Korean spirit. But to taste Korean food is to experience the nation’s complex historical mosaic and to witness culinary practices and techniques that have survived the nation’s turbulent, chromatic past.
We hope our guide will help you enjoy your trip to the fullest.
Street Food and Snacks
Most Korean street foods are thickened with wheat or coated with flour and fried, including the most common tteokbokki (rice cake simmered in spicy red pepper sauce), eomuk or odeng (skewered fish cake) and mandu, or dumplings. That said, though the list of safe quick foods is sparse, street food for the gluten intolerant is not entirely off-limits. Let your nose lead you to dried roasted squid and octopus, or to carts selling roasted chestnuts. Find skewers of fresh fruit during spring and summer months. Look for cups of roasted gingko nuts or roasted sweet potatoes during fall and winter. Convenience stores are everywhere but don’t stock a wide variety of gluten free snack options. Pack dried fruits and nuts to carry you through long days of sightseeing.
Rice: Order bibimbap, or steamed rice with an array of seasoned vegetables topped with a fried egg and strips of dried seaweed called gim. Skip the gochujang (the red pepper paste that often contains wheat). Hwedeopbap is similar to bibimbap, but is topped with raw slices of fish, sans egg. No visitor should leave Korea without trying dolsot bibimbap, a version of bibimbap served in a sizzling hot stone pot. Chobap is the Korean version of nigiri, or raw fish cloaked over sticky rice. Do be wary of soy sauce cross-contamination at any sushi bar.
Porridge: Juk, a mild and comforting bowl of warm rice porridge, is especially soothing for an upset stomach. Restaurants that specialize in juk are everywhere and easy to spot. Look for pictures of bowls of porridge in the windows. Be wary of seafood or beef options, as either could contain soy sauce. To be safe, order yachae juk, a vegetarian version of the dish.
Soup: Korea has soups for all seasons, and most have soy sauce at the base of their broths. One gluten free soup is seolleongtang, a slow-simmered brew of ox bones and brisket seasoned tableside with green onion, salt, garlic and red pepper flakes. Not all versions of seolleongtang include noodles or noodles made with wheat, but be sure to request yours without by saying “myeon bbae-go ju-se-yo.” Another safe soup is samgyetang, a bubbling pot of simply-flavored broth and young chicken stuffed with sticky rice, jujubes and ginseng.
Tofu and vegan: Several spots in Insadong specialize in housemade tofu, called dubu, and vegan temple food, much of which is also gluten free. Stick to vegetables that have been steamed or dressed with oil, and avoid anything that’s been fried or tossed with red pepper paste or soy sauce.
For many travelers, Korean barbecue is the dining highlight of their trip. A vast spread of banchan, or side dishes, is included in the cost of a plate of meat, but steer clear of marinated pork and beef, as the marinades always contain soy sauce. Vegetarians will find a filling meal of rice, side dishes and ssam, or lettuce and cabbage to wrap, though it is mandatory to purchase at least two servings of meat at all barbecue restaurants. Use this chart to help navigate a typical table of Korean barbecue and the myriad of inclusive side dishes.
Use this printable traveler’s card to help communicate your allergy in Korean. Download the printable pdf here.
Coming Soon: A Gluten Free Guide for Residents
For further reading, I recommend “Cuisine, Colonialism and Cold War: Food in Twentieth-Century Korea” by Katarzyna J. Cwiertka (2012), an in-depth volume and an invaluable resource while writing this article.
Thank you to Jamie Melnychuk, Suzi Unwin, Jennifer Flinn, Amanda Paa, D.K. Lee, Yaeri Song and Sonja Swanson for their generous input, without which this piece might never have reached the finish line. Next round is on me.