Being a vegetarian in Korea can be rough. I, myself, am an omnivore, but I’ve got enough vegetarian friends here that I can sympathize. There just aren’t a lot of vegetarian options in Korea. Like with a lot of countries who’ve recently come out of poverty, vegetarianism seems counter intuitive to most Koreans. Since you can actually afford to eat meat 3 meals a day, why shouldn’t you? It doesn’t help that a lot of Koreans don’t really consider fish or seafood to be meat. You might’ve ordered that jjigae (찌개), or stew, with out meat, only to find a fish head floating in it when it gets to your table.
You might think that vegetarians here are condemned to a life of ramen noodles, veggie kimbap (김밥) and rice porridge. What most folks don’t realize (even a lot of Koreans) is that there’s a long tradition of vegetarian Korean cuisine that’s associated with the Buddhist temples here, known as “sachal umshik” (사찰음식).
Even though it’s not a temple, Baru (바루) Restaurant specializes in sachal umshik and lucky for us it’s only a 2 minute cab ride from the Gyeongju Bus Terminal. My wife and I have been going here for so long that we don’t even bother with the menu and go for the 15,000 won a person set menu. You might think that steep, but it winds up being a 6 or 7 course meal. If you’re a vegetarian living in Korea, treat yourself. You’ve earned it.
The first few courses are just appetizers, starting out with a savory little bowel of juk (죽), or Korean rice porridge. Then it’s on to Korean wheat pancakes, along with little veggie wraps (you’ve got to make them yourself), and healthy glutinous rice, or chapssal (찹쌀) in Korean, steamed in leaves.
When the main courses come (that’s plural mind you), there’s vegetarian japchae (잡채), or fried glass noodles, and vegetable tempura. This is followed by vegetarian tangsuyuk (탕수육), or sweet and sour pork. I don’t know what their pork substitute is (maybe fried rice cakes?), but its some how the right balance of chewy and crunchy. Even better than the real thing, I’d say. Just when you think you’re stuffed, they bring out the vegetable bibimbap (비빔밥), which again you mix yourself. Dessert is simply tea and sliced apples.
Mind you Baru might not be for everyone. If you love Korean food for all the fried meat and spine tingling spiciness, that’s not what Baru is about. On the other hand, if you’d like to try a lighter, healthier side of traditional Korean cuisine, Baru’s the place. Even the presentation of the food here is very tasteful and I always leave feeling healthy.
Baru is just a 2 minute taxi ride, or 15 minute walk, from the Gyengju Bus Terminals, just off of N.R 4 as it goes south-west out of town. It’s in the little village of Seoak-dong at the foot of Mt. Seoaksan, on the right, just past the tomb parks of kings Muyeol and Inmun before NR 4 goes up the hill. While you’re out there, definitely take an hour or two to stroll around Seoak-dong village and wander among the farm houses, tombs and Confucian academies.
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