Gluten Free in Korea: My Story

I’ve been meaning to write this post for ages. So long in fact that I have so much to say and no idea where to start. So, I’ll start from the very beginning! I will continue this post in a second part, with practical tips including how to travel Korea on a gluten free diet, etc. This post is a more personal look at my experiences here.

When I first came to Korea I was on a fairly strict diet that included eating gluten free, dairy free, sugar free, vegetarian (mostly vegan) and low carb. I had been diagnosed with a gluten allergy about a year or so prior and I had some issues. In retrospect they were likely caused by eating gluten for so long, and my body desperately needed to heal.

I arrived in Korea in August of 2014, and went straight to my EPIK orientation. I had no idea what I could and couldn’t eat, I could barely read Korean let alone understand it, and there was no information to be found anywhere. I was flying blind and living off of rice, kimchi, salad, and occasionally egg dishes when they were offered. I was smart to do so, because even though I wasn’t eating a lot of what I probably could have, I successfully avoided everything I couldn’t.

Bukchon Hanok Village in Seoul

Gwangjang Market

Things got more difficult when it came to my job, apartment, and social life. I had learned a lot about Korean culture before I arrived, and was well aware that enjoying meals together and sharing is a huge part of it. For fear of offending anyone, I accepted everything that was offered to me. I didn’t want to have more attention on myself than I already did being the only foreigner in %99 of any given situation, and I definitely did not want to be seen as rude or ungrateful. I happily accepted pieces of toast at school, gifts in the form of cookies, chocolates, and even though I couldn’t understand any of what was said, I felt more of a connection with those around me as I shared food with my fellow teachers in the office.


Suwon Fortress

I hid most of it or would put it away as if to save it for later, only to give it to my friends when I saw them or discreetly wrap toast only to unfortunately have to toss it when I got home. The worst thing in my mind, was to decline anything. Especially when it came from people who wanted to make me feel welcome and comfortable, even though we couldn’t communicate. The only thing we understood between us was that offering food is a kind thing to do, and graciously accepting it is a way to reciprocate that. Even more than that, it was important to me to accept gifts from students, who couldn’t always speak English well but did their best to write me notes and letters about how much they loved me and enjoyed my class, and wanted to show it by bringing me cookies or a traditional Korean snack.

The first meal I had in my city (Daegu) was bibimbap with my head English teacher, upon arriving at my new school. She mentioned that the last foreign teacher always went out for lunch and didn’t eat with the other teachers, so it made her very happy and relieved to see that I enjoyed Korean food and that we could eat together.

I don’t regret doing what I did, and I avoided everything I knew %100 that I couldn’t have. For example, at lunch one day one of our side dishes was pasta. My head P.E. teacher seemed excited about it and assumed I would be too as I’m a foreigner and foreigners eat a lot of pasta (or so is the stereotype.) He was concerned I didn’t have any on my lunch tray so he thought I didn’t see it and brought the entire serving bowl of pasta into the lunch room to give me some. I declined as politely as I possibly could, and tried to explain that I wasn’t able to eat it. He insisted I try some as it was very good, and again I tried to explain that I have an allergy and if I ate some, it would make me very sick. He insisted again that I try some as it’s very delicious. He didn’t want to let it go, so I eventually took some pasta on my plate and thanked him. He didn’t seem content with just that, and insisted that I try it because it’s just so delicious. I finally gave up and had a bite of the pasta, agreeing that it was delicious which he was very happy to see, which to be honest, made me happy as well. He proceeded to serve me more pasta. It was just one of many times that I had to choose between my health and offending others.

Seongsan Mountain, Jeju

School lunches were confusing to say the least. I didn’t know what I was eating half the time; avoiding anything obviously off limits, and having no one to ask. The only English speaking people in the school were the English teachers with whom I worked with and they always ate lunch with their homeroom classes whereas I ate lunch in the lunchroom with the rest of the teachers. I ended up getting sick almost constantly, but I would have no idea where it was coming from or what caused it. I had no way of pinpointing the cause. I tried asking my co-teachers but they didn’t know either. I actually gave up trying at one point, and ate the fish cake, desserts, and fried foods, simply picking off most of the batter and insisting to my friends and to myself, that I’m fine.

After my first year at that school, my digestive system was a mess. I couldn’t eat anything at all without getting painful cramping, bloating, and diarrhea almost immediately afterward. I was exhausted all the time because I was not absorbing anything. I was moody, my skin was terrible, my hormones were all over the place, I was lightheaded, cranky, and couldn’t think straight. I made a promise to myself that after moving to Seoul and starting my second job, I would do better for my health. I would make myself a priority. Even if that meant declining to eat out with friends, or graciously explaining that I couldn’t eat certain things.

I started out my second year on a diet of bland foods including rice, and steamed vegetables. I even cut out kimchi for a while as it was often too irritating for my stomach. At this point, my Korean was better. I could understand what ingredients were what, and learned more about what I could and couldn’t eat. I knew how to ask about certain foods, I understood Korean food more, and I was so much more prepared.

Temple food

My experience in Seoul was better. My new school and lunchroom were small. I had a foreign coworker to talk and eat with. I told the lunch lady about my allergies and my coworker helped translate when I needed it. The lunch lady was amazing. She warned me about the food containing wheat at lunch that I couldn’t eat. Life was getting easier! I still had the inclination to not decline, and I probably always will. But I wasn’t afraid to let people know that I’m allergic. I introduced more foods into my diet as time went on, went back on probiotics and glutamine supplements, and found I could even tolerate soy sauce occasionally. I learned to listen to my body again, and make my health my number one priority. I started baking, and bringing baked goods to school for my coworkers.

Traditional Korean tea; Ginger and Cinnamon

The lunch lady was unbelievably kind. I brought some banana bread to her one day, and she was shocked by how soft and delicious it was, especially since it wasn’t made with wheat flour. She thanked me and seemed very touched. A few days after that as I went into the lunchroom, she asked me excitedly if I liked banana milk. I told her I’m actually allergic to dairy too, so I can only drink soy or almond milk. At which point I noticed she’d already had a small container of banana milk in her hand that she’d bought for me. I apologized profusely, and regretted mentioning my allergy so much in that moment. I wish I could have just accepted it from her. She seemed disappointed and it broke my heart that she did that for me and I couldn’t take it. A few days after that, she came into the teacher’s office and discreetly placed a soy milk next to the computer monitor I was working at. I couldn’t believe she took the time to do that… I thanked her and made a point of telling her later how delicious it was. I will never forget both that experience, and her.

Unfortunately as the year went on, I experienced a lot of stress from work and my boss. I took on too many projects, was working almost constantly, and I had no time to de-stress and eat properly. I started drinking a lot of coffee to get by. But by far the hardest thing was learning who and what I could trust. I saw so many shops selling rice bread in Seoul. I could communicate somewhat confidently in Korean now and could ask about the ingredients. %99 of the time, they would agree that yes, their products are only made from rice and no wheat. I trusted them and ate it, and got sick. I repeated this a few times until I learned to ask multiple times. Upon asking twice or sometimes even three times, they would eventually admit that their bread is a mix of rice and wheat flour. I gave up on these places altogether.

Gluten free cooking class: Bibimbap

I started this blog the fall I moved to Seoul, in 2015. At that time, no one was talking about gluten free. I finally discovered a gluten free Facebook group here. It was small, but it existed! I was over the moon. I was practically the only one posting to Instagram with a gluten free hashtag in Korean. It wasn’t until 2016 that more places started popping up as gluten free became a trend. I got excited but my excitement was pretty short lived as I realized a lot of people used the tag but didn’t understand fully what gluten really was and were advertising “%100 rice” when it just wasn’t the case. It was just the next trend in health food. I contacted a lot of the places only to find they use wheat, barley, or their products contain malt. I got sick from a lot of places advertising that their products were gluten free.

I’ve now been in Korea for over three years, and I’ve learned so much in my time here. It’s mid 2017, and I’m happy with what I’ve accomplished and how far the gluten free scene in Korea has come. There are now places you can trust with making gluten free food, and communities to engage with and support you in eating a gluten free diet in Korea. There are people you can ask, and people who understand the seriousness of allergies. I’ve learned never to initially trust what people say, which is a very unfortunate side effect of what I’m sure are good intentions. I’ve learned to be cautious for the right reasons and to look out for myself. I’ve learned to be more assertive and less afraid of offending everyone, although I still accept every gift a student gives me and probably always will.

Life is good. I’m back to being a healthy, balanced, and happy version of me.

To be continued…

Erin xo

(In the interest of not writing an entire novel here, I’ll be continuing this post in a second part with practical tips on how to survive travelling Korea on a gluten free diet and how to navigate the language barrier. There are Korean gluten free allergy cards out there, but I’ve never seen an accurate one that accounts for actual Korean food and ingredients. If you have any questions please comment below and let me know so I can discuss them in that post!)

2 comments on “Gluten Free in Korea: My Story

  1. I really enjoyed reading about your experience! How brave of you to pick up and go to a new country, ‘flying blind’ until you figured things out! I SUPER appreciate your blog – you have given me confidence that I will be able to go to Seoul and actually eat gluten free (which I need to do as I have Celiac) and vegan 🙂 Looking forward to part 2 <3

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