A Burger, Well-Done, Hold the MeatThe lunch-hour crowd at Vegetarian Buffet Country Life in Nonhyun-dong, Seoul, seemed like regular folks, not the thin, marathon runner types that I expected to see at a vegetarian restaurant. In fact, the people lining up in front of the buffet table laden with sweet and sour tofu, veggie burgers, vegetarian kimchi (made without anchovies), fresh vegetables and soybean salad dressing, to mention but a few dishes, were mostly somewhat heavy-set, middle-aged men in suits.
"Most of our customers are part-time vegetarians who eat regular meals at home but opt to have a vegetarian lunch for health reasons," said restaurant owner Yoo Chung-sook, who has seen a 20-30 percent rise in the number of customers in the past few months.
Clearly, fears about both mad cow and foot-and-mouth disease have sparked a keen interest in vegetarianism. A vegetarian group on the internet portal Daum has seen its membership more than double from 700-800 to 1,800 members in the past couple of months, according to Lee Won-bok, 34, who heads the community. Not everyone may be a strict vegetarian, but the well-attended weekly meetings, which include study sessions on vegetarianism, attest to the growing popularity of the vegetarian lifestyle.
Vegetarians come in many different stripes. There are the vegans, the strictest of vegetarians, who eat exclusively plant products and no meat, dairy or fish products at all. Lactovegetarians eat dairy products but not eggs, meat or fish. Those vegetarians whose diet includes both eggs and dairy products, but no meat or fish, are called ovolactovegetarians.
A typical vegetarian diet, which is low in fat, cholesterol and calories, is beneficial to your health because it can reduce blood cholesterol level, the leading cause of heart disease. It also facilitates weight loss and reduces the likelihood of diabetes and high blood pressure.
There is also a link between reduced cancer rates and diets rich in fruits, vegetables and grains. In addition, scientists are discovering an array of "phytochemicals," found in plants, that protect health and prevent disease. Beta-carotene, present in orange or dark green vegetables, has been shown to reduce the risk of cancer and hardening of the arteries. Broccoli contains sulforaphane, which has a role in neutralizing enzymes that may trigger cancer. Glucobrassicin is present in all cruciferous vegetables, such as cabbage and bok choy, and appears to help the body form indoles that may have a role in preventing breast and other types of cancers. Bananas, spinach and potatoes are good sources of potassium, which is linked to reduced risk of high blood pressure and stroke. Phytate and protease inhibitors, thought to play a role in cancer prevention, are found in beans. Allicin, found in garlic and onions, seems to lower cholesterol and blood pressure as well as discourage clots. Isoflavones, present in green tea and tofu, have cancer-inhibiting properties.
Recent studies have shown that a combination of vegetables can provide all the building blocks of protein that the body needs, including the eight essential amino acids the body cannot manufacture itself. However, to assure an adequate supply, liberal amounts of vegetable protein from beans and soy products are needed. It is also important to get starches from whole grains, fruits and vegetables as well as oils low in saturated fats, like the ones in nuts and seeds.
Although vegetarianism helps one stay healthy, it poses a risk of nutritional deficiencies because of the limited selection of foods. Inadequate intake of vitamin B12, which occurs naturally only in animal products, can cause anemia and increase the risk of heart disease. Lack of vitamin D, whose main sources are sunlight and fortified milk, can cause rickets. A daily multivitamin pill is a good idea.
"Balanced nutrition is essential. Even when eating meat, if you balance it with other foods, you can still prevent many diseases. On the other hand, if you stick to an unbalanced vegetarian diet, dangerous health conditions can develop, such as lowered immune system functions," cautioned Song Sook-ja, a former food nutrition professor at Sahmyook University, Seoul, who now runs a health counseling service.
Mr. Lee, who became a vegetarian 15 years ago, opposes the killing of animals for food, and said it is difficult to be a vegan in Korea where there is little awareness of vegetarianism. Dining out is a difficult task, especially when eating with non-vegetarians, because regular restaurants do not offer vegetarian menus. Another difficulty is avoiding meat and fish products in soup. "Korean meals are usually accompanied by a soup and you cannot always see the meat or fish pieces that have been used to make the broth," he explained.
There have been gains made in vegetarian cooking though, and it is now possible to closely replicate the taste of original Korean meat recipes with vegetarian ingredients. For a soup that calls for beef-stock broth, Ms. Yoo suggested the following: Bring dried shittake mushroom, kelp and onion to a boil over a low heat, then add rice grains, scallions, garlic and finely ground cashew nuts to taste. "Cashew nuts have a rich taste and will make the soup taste very much like beef-stock based ones," she said.
by Kim Hoo-ran