*This post contains affiliate links.
Celiac Disease in South Korea
Let me start off this post by confirming that yes, I do indeed have Celiac Disease. I found out almost four years ago due to an initial blood test. Last year I was seeing a new doctor in Toronto who wanted to test again but by scope, so once again I ate gluten and it was (of course) confirmed.
I’ve been off gluten for roughly four years with a brief few months break in early 2016.
This post is for anyone who avoids gluten, whether you have confirmed celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or wheat just makes you feel gross. So keep reading if you are interested in what it’s like living with Celiac Disease in South Korea.
Can I live in Korea with celiac disease?
Short answer? Yes! Of course you can!
Before I moved here I feverishly searched for information on Celiac Disease in South Korea. My results? Not a whole lot beyond the occasional post on waygook.org. Honestly, I came across a lot of negative people who claimed that living in Korea is “impossible” with any kind of dietary restriction. These were the same people that made me think I was going to be asked to drink alcohol all the time (not true).
Look, we all have different experiences living here. But if you are reading this and you have any kind of dietary restriction whether it be an allergy or personal choice (vegan, paleo etc.) know that you are not alone! There are tons of people here with dietary restrictions and I assure you we are getting by just fine.
Do Koreans have celiac disease?
I’ve tried to find some studies on this topic but the reality is there is not much data. However, some do suggest that celiac disease is indeed prevalent in Asian countries especially ones that are adopting more Western style, wheat-heavy diets. The problem is testing for it is still fairly new so the symptoms can easily be misdiagnosed (IBD, IBS etc.). I have a hunch that we will see more talk of gluten free diets in the next few years as more research is done and more doctors start testing for it.
I’ve explained to my co teachers that I’ve got a gluten allergy and they are totally understanding. While food allergies might not seem common here they do exist and if you explain Celiac Disease as a gluten allergy they will understand.
Eating at Restaurants
I will not lie, eating out at restaurants can be stressful sometimes. As a Celiac, I was totally spoiled when living in Toronto. It was so easy to find gluten free options at almost all of the restaurants I went to, not to mention plenty of 100% gluten free spots too!
What makes it difficult here is avoiding sauces. To be fair, in Canada I would follow the same rule unless something was clearly labelled gluten free. The problem is that a lot of traditional Korean food is heavy on sauces, and all those sauces contain gluten.
Soy sauce? Wheat.
Gochujang (Red Pepper Paste)? Often thickened with wheat or barely.
Bulgogi marinade? Wheat.
If you have Celiac Disease in South Korea you really do need to avoid any food with sauces. Which can be frustrating because the rest of the dish might look totally safe!
When sauces and pastes started to be commercially made, wheat was added to the process. Traditionally, these sauces did not contain gluten – which makes the whole situation even more annoying!
The good news is that if you’re hoping to cook some Korean food at home you can buy gluten free sauces easily. I always have a bottle of gluten free soy sauce (from iHerb) in my fridge so I can enjoy sushi weekly. I’ve also heard of gluten free Gochujang being sold online but have not yet tried it myself.
What I eat at restaurants
I’ll admit I’m still totally learning what to eat at restaurants. Some days it feels like I can’t eat anything without encountering gluten. If you have Celiac Disease in South Korea you will likely spend a lot of time cooking your own food. I love to cook so this is no issue, but if you’re used to buying premade gluten free foods understand that those will not be available here.
Follow me on Instagram [shellonmyback] if you want to see what I’m eating at restaurants while I try to navigate the (limited) gluten-free choices!
Where you live will also play an important role. I imagine if you live in a city like Seoul or Busan you are more likely to find restaurants that offer gluten free options. But if you’re like me and you live outside of one of the larger cities, you’re going to have to do more of your own research. You can also download travel cards that explain your Celiac-specific dietary restrictions at www.celiactravel.com. Though, I’d caution against simply handing the card to the server and assuming things will be alright. Since Celiac Disease is not well-known in Korea, you can’t just expect the restaurant to easily cater to your (possibly strange) needs.
I enjoy going to Korean BBQ places because they typically have a good selection of unmarinated meats to choose from. Nicely cooked meat with some rice and vegetables can make a nice dinner out. Just avoid anything marinated.
I also eat a lot of sushi. Now, if you have Celiac Disease you know you must be careful around sushi. Typically, I stick to salmon and tuna but I like to try new things too. Avoid soy sauce (of course), be careful around wasabi, and watch out for anything battered. I have some awesome all you can eat sushi places that I visit that also have excellent salad bars so those help too.
A lot of people (I hear) order bibimbap without the gochujang (red pepper paste). I have not tried this as I’m sensitive to egg so I avoid bibimbap all together. But it might be a good option since it’s widely available and pretty tasty even without the gochujang.
I’ve been told that altering the menu is not common in Korea the same way it is back in Canada, where we easily add or take away things and generally the restaurant is cool with it. Saying ‘no gochujang’ on your bibimbap probably isn’t a big deal but any changes beyond that might be rejected. It’s better to try to find things that are naturally gluten-free opposed to having the restaurant alter the menu for you.
Can I eat school lunches?
My advice would be to explain to your co teachers that you have a gluten allergy and then pack your own lunch.
A little secret?
I ate school lunches for my first 4 months in Korea, for the entire first semester of school. When I moved here I knew that eating together was important (culturally) and the idea of being the (weird) new girl who brought her own lunch just added to the anxiety of the whole situation.
I also wanted to try Korean food as I had not been exposed to it much prior to moving here. Needless to say, I consumed gluten in those first few months. Some days school lunches were safe and other days they were plates of gluten. Unless you’re cool with just eating rice and some veggies every day then I suggest packing your own lunch. Most schools have a staff room with a microwave if you need to heat some things up. It can feel a little isolating but your health is more important. I feel significantly better since I started bringing my own lunches.
Can I get tested for celiac disease in South Korea?
Yes, but it might be tricky to find a doctor who tests for it. I saw a doctor in Gwangju at the Kwangju Christian Hospital who does in fact test for Celiac Disease. There are also doctors in Seoul at some of the larger, international hospitals that will test you. I recommend joining the Facebook group, Gluten Free in Korea, and asking where to go there. People are super helpful and will point you in the right direction if you are trying to either find a doctor familiar with Celiac Disease or one that will test you for it. It’s also a fantastic Facebook group for general information, people will post gluten free products they find at stores, share helpful info, etc.
Be prepared for gluten attacks
I recommend to anyone with Celiac Disease in South Korea to be prepared for unexpected gluten encounters. This can mean different things to different folks, it really depends on what kind of reaction gluten gives you. Recently my body has decided to start breaking out in ‘gluten rashes’, so although I hate taking them I’m keeping antihistamines in my bag just in case.
I also suggest you make sure your supplement routine is top notch especially if you’re not eating nutritionally dense meals at home. This could be dedicated to an entire post itself, but at least have some vitamins and/or probiotics on hand to fill the gaps in your diet.
– Celiac Disease in South Korea does exist though it is not commonly diagnosed.
– You can get diagnosed with Celiac Disease in South Korea but will need to first find a doctor familiar with it (check out Gluten Free in Korea)
– Be careful while eating out. Avoid sauces including soy sauce and gochujang.
– Bring your own lunch to school if you are a public school teacher. Explain the situation to your co-teachers (gluten allergy) and accept any awkwardness. Your health is too important to risk.
– Start cooking! If you don’t already cook this is a good time to start. It is more difficult to find pre-made gluten free foods so cooking is your safest (and healthiest) bet.
– You will likely find more options if you live in a larger city but don’t feel like you must live there. I am happily gluten-free here in Jeollanamdo with no plans to leave any time soon!
Living abroad is amazing and every week might feel like a new adventure. But please, don’t let it mess up your health. My health has improved since moving to South Korea in part due to having surgery here in April. I invest a large portion of my pay into my health and I honestly think it’s one of the smartest investments you can make. Have fun but don’t make decisions you will regret.