Photo by Dylan + Jen; styling by Jeni Afuso
Photo by Jun Michael Park
From spicy oi muchim (cucumber salad) to japchae, a beloved noodle dish, consider this a crash course in Korean Banchan.
What you need to know about the history, etiquette, and ingredients behind banchan, the small dishes that accompany most Korean meals.
No Korean meal is complete without a bevy of banchan, the small shareable dishes that come before the main courses. While multiple origin theories and infinite banchan varieties exist, custom dictates highly specific preparations, such as blanched, braised, stir-fried, dried, fermented, and roasted.
Banchan is influenced by Eastern philosophy, says food blogger Kim Chan-Sook, so it should encompass five colors, symbolizing, among other things, the directions: green (or blue) for east, red for south, yellow for center, white for west, and black for north. And it should be served in dishes of three, five, seven, or nine types (in yin and yang principles, odd numbers are yang, considered good luck), alongside rice, soup, sauces, and, of course, kimchi—which doesn’t count as banchan. “Kimchi just comes automatically,” Kim says. “It’s expected, like a glass of water.”
Banchan is served prior to the main course. Tables are typically set with a spoon—used to eat rice and any soups or stews that come with the meal—and a pair of flat, metal chopsticks. Most people eat a bit of banchan right away, alternating bites with bites of rice, and save some to mix and match with the main course(s). There are many rules that govern banchan. Two big ones? Never pick up a rice bowl or banchan dish and eat from it—that’s considered rude—and never stick your spoon or chopsticks vertically into your rice when not using them.
Seasoned soybean sprouts
One of the milder options you’ll find in a banchan spread, kongnamul is also one of the most popular and ubiquitous Korean side dishes. Composed of soybean sprouts, sesame oil, garlic, and a light sprinkling of chile flakes, kongnamul has a light, nutty flavor and an irresistible crunch.
Spicy cucumber salad
This deceptively simple dish packs in a lot of bright and tangy flavor. “Oi muchim” translates directly to “seasoned cucumber” in English and features thin slices of cucumber tossed in hot pepper flakes, sesame seeds, and sesame oil.
It’s no secret that Koreans love garlic. In maneul jangajji, cloves of garlic are quick-pickled in a vinegar and soy sauce brine and served cold. The remaining sweet, pungent liquid can be used as a dressing or an impromptu dipping sauce.
This dish is traditionally served in the summertime when zucchinis are the most sweet and tender. Zucchini is quartered and then seasoned with saeujeot (salted shrimp), garlic, scallions, and sesame oil. It’s traditionally made with aehobak (Korean zucchini), which has a thinner skin and more delicate flesh than Western varieties.
Sweet and salty black soybeans
Kongjaban is a favorite dish among kids and is frequently packed in lunch boxes—but it’s not just for children! To make kongjaban, black soybeans are stewed in a mix of soy sauce and anchovy broth until they’re soft (but not mushy) and then seasoned with a generous amount of sugar, sesame oil, and sesame seeds, making for the perfect sweet and savory treat.
Sweet soy-braised lotus root
The unusual, lacy appearance of lotus roots make yeongeun jorim a showstopper on the table. For this dish, lotus roots are thinly sliced and braised in soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, and either rice or corn syrup—the syrup gives the roots a pleasing texture. A sprinkle of sesame seeds and sesame oil finish the dish.
Myulchi bokkeum offers a holy trifecta of sweet, savory, and nutty flavors. An intriguing mix of dried anchovies and toasted peanuts, this dish also packs a spicy kick with slices of green chile peppers.
Stir-fried glass noodles
Japchae is traditionally prepared during big holidays such as Lunar New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival, but it is also enjoyed year round. Japchae actually translates to “mixed vegetables”—when the dish was first created during the early 17th century, it was served without noodles and consisted of beef stir-fried with carrots, onions, mushrooms, and green onions. Now, nearly 400 years later, japchae’s main attraction is, arguably, its delightfully chewy potato noodles. Soy sauce, rice wine, sesame oil, and sugar are combined to create a sweet and savory sauce while slender strips of egg provide color.
Gyeran mari is like the Korean answer to Japan’s tamagoyaki—a sweet, layered omelette that’s rolled into a boxy, rectangular shape. Gyen mari, however, is more savory than tamagoyaki. In this dish, thoroughly beaten eggs are mixed with finely diced vegetables and meat and then rolled into a tight spiral. Sometimes chefs line the omelette with a sheet of dark green gim (seaweed) before rolling to accentuate the spiral shape.
Spicy shredded radish
If you love a good crunch, this is the banchan for you. The secret to mu saengchae is a fresh, firm Korean daikon radish, which is a bit more sweet than its Japanese counterpart. The daikon is julienned using either a mandolin or a sharp knife and then tossed with rice vinegar, sugar, garlic, and gochugaru (Korean red chile flakes). A generous pinch of salt helps draw out excess liquid from the daikon and gives it its crispness.
With its purple color and lustrous sheen, you can’t miss gaji namul—a popular summer dish—in a banchan spread. To make it, eggplants are steamed just until the flesh turns soft and sweet and the skin becomes tender. Then the eggplant is tossed in gochugaru, garlic, sesame oil, and soy sauce.
Sigeumchi namul is one of the simplest banchan: gently blanched spinach is dressed with soy sauce, sesame oil, and garlic and sometimes garnished with a sprinkling of sesame seeds. Often, you’ll find sigeumchi namul in bibimbap as well.
Seasoned acorn jelly
This dish is made with a rather unconventional ingredient: dotorimuk—acorn jelly. After being ground into a fine powder and mixed with water, acorns will naturally set without the need for gelatin or agar. Acorn jelly is soft, chewy, and slightly bitter and in dotorimuk muchim (“muchim” simply means seasoned), it’s topped with a drizzle of soy sauce, brown sugar, sesame oil, and hot pepper flakes and garnished with green onions and sesame seeds.
Braised burdock root
Ueong jorim is similar to yeongeun jorim but features burdock root instead of lotus root. Thinly sliced burdock root is braised in a soy sauce and corn- or rice-syrup concoction and then stir-fried in either sesame or perilla oil. Ueong jorim is best enjoyed in the fall when burdock is in season.
To make pajeon (“pa” means scallion while “jeon” means fritter) green scallions and (frequently) a colorful ingredient like carrots are combined in a flour batter, and then fried into thin pancakes. There are many variations of scallion pancakes throughout Asia, such as Taiwan’s cong you bing, so what really distinguishes Korea’s take on the popular Asian street food is its dipping sauce. Pajeon is usually accompanied by a sweet and savory soy sauce–based dip that’s been sweetened with honey or sugar and topped with chile flakes.
>>Next: Inside the Culinary Renaissance of Korean Banchan
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