Back in the day, I was ballin' vegetarian/vegan cook. The days when I used to make coconut cream pies with agar agar (a seaweed-based gelatin substitute) and vegan macaroni with a delectable nutritional yeast based "cheese" sauce seem ages and ages ago, which saddens me slightly. I still dream of making Coconut Butternut Squash Soup and Penne w/Roasted Beets/Beet Greens/Local Goat Cheese...and I find myself wishing with increasingly frequency that I had brought one of my Peter Berley cookbooks here.
(For a rather lame defense of my decision to go meaty in Korea, see here).
Not to say that I don't cook here. I do. But restaurant-ing is a big part of my life. I don't know many people who cook for themselves who live alone..for both my Korean and the non-Korean friends here, eating is a social occasion, and I try and take people up on eating dates with frequency.
It is dirt-cheap to eat out here. A nice BBQ duck dinner at a classy restaurant, for instance, only ends up costing about 10,000 per person ($8.86 US). Even better, my lunches at the Gimbap restaurant range from 1,300 to 4,000 won ($1.51-$3.54 US). I frequently pay with spare change--ie, if you order right in this country, it is often cheaper to eat out than it is to eat in.
So what does someone who once had aspirations of being a vegan/vegetarian chef do when faced with a culinary culture that practically encourages eating out? Simply put, I cook less, for better or for worse. When I do cook, I make simple one-dish meals that a) utilize cheap, seasonal produce, b) can be prepared in twenty minutes or less, and c) generally follow this "recipe," of which any of the steps can be omitted without the whole thing turning out tasting completely revolting:
Hagwon Hotdish a la Madeline
--a 13"+ non-stick skillet
--a mixing spoon of some sort
--soybean oil(it's locally produced, cheap, and has a high burning temp, making it the best choice over olive oil or butter here, which are usually imported)
--a medium onion (the only must-have on this list), diced
--salt (soy sauce, with it's high sodium content, will do in a pinch)
--3 cloves of minced garlic
--mushrooms, about 1 cup, diced (the array of 'shrooms here is astoundingly awesome)
--green cabbage, 1/8th of a head, diced into 1/4" strips
--dash of coriander
--dash of cumin
--dash of turmeric
--dash of red pepper
--1/2 a dash of garam masala
--a spoonful of brown sugar
--spoonful of "paste", of which Korea has multitudes of: Gochugang, or fermented red pepper paste, is the most popular, though I also like Doenjang (fermented soybean paste full of the same probiotics found in miso*) and Chunjang (sweetened black soybean paste)
--splash of soy sauce
--splash of pineapple/orange juice
--A block of tofu (optional), well drained
--2 cups, approximately, of seasonal Korean veggies, chopped into bite-sized pieces
for summer: eggplant, summer squash/zucchini, bell peppers, tomatoes, corn
for fall: sweet potatoes and pumpkin(ideally par-boiled here, to save time), kale/bok choy/other mysterious greens found here
for winter: broccoli, celery (Koreans love celery greens, too, which is awesome...we usually throw these away at home)
for spring: anticipating snow peas, green onions, spinach, hopefully asparagus (don't know if it grows here), carrots
--splash of vinegar
1) Heat a quarter-sized dollop of the soybean oil in the pan over medium heat.
2) Add the onion to the hot oil with some salt to make it sweat. Wait until clear-ish.
3) Add the garlic, mushrooms, and the cabbage. Saute until everything is limp.
4) Add spices, paste*, and sugar, mixing thoroughly.
5) Once paste is evenly incorporated, add the juice and soy sauce, until there is just enough liquid in the pan to ensure nothing is burning.
6)Crumble in the tofu (if using) and add the veggies. If using greens, add them at the very end after the more substantial veggies have cooked for five to seven minutes.
7)Sometimes I scramble in an egg or two here, if I'm not using tofu.
8) Turn off the heat. Splash with rice vinegar (to keep the greens from turning brown). Add a slice of cheese if you're feeling decadent. Eat!
*If using Doenjang, you would mix it in at the end of the cooking process, so as not to boil it and kill all of the nutritious bacteria (which reputedly aid digestion/pooping regularity ect.)