Photo by Jun Michael Park
Photo by Jun Michael Park
At Jirisan restaurant in Seoul, chefs prepare traditional banchan—and tofu from soybeans ground fresh each day.
In Seoul, South Korea, a writer explores the origins—and resurgence—of one of the country’s richest culinary traditions.
I still clearly remember my first meal in South Korea. I had just arrived in the country, fresh out of college and ready to begin a job teaching English. My new boss had whisked me from the airport to a barbecue restaurant, where I’d watched in panic as mounds of beef appeared on the tabletop grill. I didn’t eat red meat, and I was worried about offending him.
Also, I was famished. Just then, a trampoline-size tray arrived, bearing tiny bowls of sesame-cucumber salad, fried anchovies, garlicky bean sprouts, boiled quail eggs, steamed eggplant, sautéed wild mushrooms, candied lotus root, and four kinds of fiery, funky kimchi. My love affair with banchan—the iconic, shared side dishes served with most Korean meals—had begun.
During the six years I lived in Busan (South Korea’s second-largest city), I ate thousands of dishes of banchan but never fully delved into its backstory. Sixteen years later, I’ve returned to South Korea, this time to explore banchan’s roots—and its culinary renaissance. I begin my journey at Jirisan, a traditional restaurant in Seoul’s arty Insadong neighborhood. As a server delivers dish after tiny dish, arranging them like puzzle pieces on the table, my dining companion, Kim Chan-Sook—a food blogger and old friend—explains banchan’s origins.
“We were historically a poor country,” Kim tells me, “so for economic reasons, common people couldn’t eat meat. Each household had one or two cows at most, so animals were used for agriculture.”
It’s often said that banchan originated in the time of Buddhist influence, during the mid–Three Kingdoms Era (57 B.C.E.–668 C.E.), when meat consumption was prohibited. Kim believes this to be a misconception. “Meat was just a precious food that was difficult to get,” she says. Vegetarian recipes were used within peasant, temple, and royal kitchens to accompany the culinary staple of rice (bap, or rice, can also mean “meal”), and these assorted vegetable dishes formed the foundation of Korean food.
Nowhere is the country’s ancient banchan heritage better maintained than at Seoul’s Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine, where hanshik, traditional cuisine from the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910) is taught. In hanshik, the cuisine once served to the king, flavors are mild and refined; you’ll find garlic, but none of Korea’s other signature spice, gochugaru (red chile pepper). While most banchan you’ll get at a restaurant comes in odd numbers, in hanshik, 12 rarefied dishes were served to the king.
Nowadays, anyone in Seoul can partake of—and prepare—hanshik, thanks largely to Han Bok-Ryeo, institute director and second successor to the last Joseon Dynasty palace cook. In addition to running the institute, Han operates Jihwaja, a fine-dining restaurant, where she re-creates recipes dating back to 1450, such as a delicate bamboo-shoot salad with ripe persimmon dressing.
“The essence of royal court cuisine,” says Hwang Ke-On, Jihwaja’s vice president, “is to make heartfelt meals with the best ingredients. It’s a slow food that requires a tremendous amount of time and effort to prepare and cook.”
Chefs such as Han, who have cooked and studied traditional Korean food their entire lives, are valued, says Kim, who also attended the institute. “They’re respected as chefs’ chefs.”
But more and more, fine-dining entrepreneurs are updating banchan. Kim tells me Seoul’s food scene is dominated by the modern category, with most contemporary chefs responding to Korean food’s worldwide boom by pivoting toward fusion fare. For example, Kang Min-Goo, chef-owner of two-Michelin-star Mingles, offers a refined take on the ultra-classic ssam, a wrapped dish: He wraps Hanwoo beef (similar to wagyu) with cabbage and serves it alongside bean soup.
At the vanguard of the modern-meets-ancient renaissance is chef Cho Hee-Sook, who spent 37 years studying hanshik and, in 2020, was named the best female chef in Asia. At her Michelin-starred restaurant, Hansikgonggan, Cho reinterprets palace cuisine using local, seasonal ingredients and tried-and-true Korean techniques. For instance, her take on juk, old-school rice porridge, changes seasonally and might incorporate pine nuts, shrimp, and scallops, and her bapjeon, rice pancakes, are sophisticated canapés with fermented seafood.
“I think it’s best when traditional food is kept authentic, without disturbing the food’s nature,” Cho says. “But I’m pursuing a new approach by combining traditional taste and appearance with modern tastes and sensibilities. I think it can elevate the value of the most distinctive banchan.”
Back at Jirisan, Kim and I enjoy our own distinctive banchan. It’s not court cuisine, but still royally delicious and reminiscent of my early experience: a panoply of colors, intense flavors, and surprising textures. Years ago, when I lifted my metal chopsticks and devoured those first bites, I knew I was tasting something special. Now that I’ve learned about its past—and future—it’s even more nourishing.
Five places to experience both traditional banchan, and its modern counterpart.
At this traditional restaurant, named for a mountain in southern South Korea, tofu is the star. Chefs grind fresh soybeans each day to prepare soy paste, soft tofu, and tofu stew.
Chef Han Bok-Ryeo is known as the “living treasure of Korean royal cuisine.” At her restaurant in downtown Seoul, diners can eat banchan similar to dishes once served to royalty.
Since 2018 Mingles has maintained two Michelin stars for chef Kang Min-Goo’s contemporary take on traditional Korean food. Korean ceramics round out the effect: Black chicken and morel mushrooms might be served in a wide earthenware bowl.
Located in a space overlooking Seoul, Hansikgonggan is run by chef Cho Hee-Sook, viewed as a godmother of Korean hanshik cuisine. Her seasonal menu might include bugak: thinly sliced vegetables or seaweed that are dipped in rice paste, dried, and then deep-fried.
Learn how to craft hanshik-style banchan through a multiday course at Seoul’s best-known culinary school. The institute was established in 1971, when South Korea decreed Korean Royal Cuisine an Intangible Cultural Property.
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