Korean food 101: Intro to banchan

Recently, the Hot Dish received a letter from a reader suggesting an article on banchan, the little dishes that automatically appear on tables at Korean restaurants.

I find that whole process alienating, since I have no idea what I am getting, or what to do with it. Do I use the kimchi as a condiment? What did they do to those sprouts? What do I do with this food?

To answer these questions, we went on a chili- and garlic-laced mission to find out what banchan is all about.

Let's start with the basics.

Banchan is a term that collectively refers to side dishes in Korean cuisine. The B sound lies somewhere between the English B and P: You sometimes see the word written as "panchan." Banchan is used both in the singular and plural--one banchan, two banchan. Soup and rice are not considered banchan, but everything else, as long as they are presented in small plates to be shared by the table, is game.

We've noted that Korean restaurants in Minnesota serve anywhere from four to eight banchan free of charge. Yes, banchan is supplied gratis. Since variety and abundance translate into good hospitality in Korea, you can ask for seconds, even thirds, of your favorite banchan without getting charged extra.

Eight banchan served at Hoban
Eight banchan served at Hoban
Kei Terauchi

Well-known banchan that frequently appear on local Korean restaurant tables include kimchi (fermented/pickled vegetables with chili pepper), namul (cooked vegetables seasoned with sesame oil, garlic, and soy sauce), and jorim (vegetables and/or proteins simmered in broth). On a recent trip to the cafeteria of Dong Yang Oriental Food in Columbia Heights, we received six banchan. At Hoban Restaurant in Eagan, we saw eight, including four kinds of kimchi (nappa cabbage, regular cabbage, green leaf lettuce, and daikon radish), two kinds of namul (spicy soybean sprout, and non-spicy regular sprout), pickled julienned daikon, and soy-simmered potatoes.

What is particularly fascinating is that each kimchi has a distinct flavor. The nappa is straight-forward, tangy and spicy, with clumps of chili tucked between the leafy folds. The daikon is milder, as the vegetable's innate sweetness comes through the heat. The green leaf lettuce kimchi is punchy with a garlic note. And the cabbage kimchi is uniquely sweet, not unlike the sweet and sour Ukrainian pickled cabbage.

Many Korean banchan rely on fermentation for flavor and preservation, resulting in a tangy, salty, and spicy taste. However, as we mentioned earlier, pretty much anything besides rice and soup can be banchan. In Korean homes, you often encounter items like salted laver (nori seaweed) perfumed with sesame oil, and whole garlic heads preserved in soy sauce, as well as acorn jelly, and simmered eggplant when they are in their peak seasons. Even dishes that can hold their own as main dishes, such as pajun (savory pancakes with green onions) and japchae (stir-fried glass noodles with vegetables and meat), transform into banchan as soon as they make their presence in small dishes to be shared with the whole table.

The way banchan is served at local Korean restaurants is how it is typically served in a Korean home--as an accompaniment to rice and a main dish. There is no right or wrong way to eat banchan. You can start whetting your appetite by nibbling on some namul with a glass of beer before your main dish arrives. You can eat kimchi by itself, or, if you like, use it as a spicy condiment for grilled meats like bulgogi and galbi. You can enjoy a refreshing bite of pickled daikon to cleanse your palate. You sometimes see people wrapping a small amount of rice with lettuce kimchi. This is particularly more common when the lettuce is replaced with the leaf of the sesame plant, a more traditional item that is difficult to replicate in Minnesota.

Unlike at Chinese or Japanese restaurants, where you are supplied with only a pair of chopsticks, Korean restaurants and homes equip you with chopsticks and a spoon. The thin metal chopsticks can be more difficult to maneuver than the Japanese and Chinese counterparts, and are used to pick up banchan and non-soupy main dish items. You are expected to use the spoon to eat rice and soup. Unlike in Japan, rice and soup bowl are not to be lifted from the table when eating from them. Many people pour a small amount of soup on their rice and scoop up the moistened result with their spoon, though this is not a requirement.

Korean imperial court cuisine differs from home-cooked meals in that it is essentially all banchan and no main dish. An imperial meal consists of about a dozen different banchan accompanied by rice and soup. Of course, the content of the banchan gets an upgrade: Rare delicacies like abalone and sea cucumber make the statement that banchan can surely wear the crown. In a way, the imperial banchan meal is like a tasting menu presented all at once, allowing your chopsticks to wander from dish to dish depending on what your stomach desires.

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