If you were to go to a Korean restaurant, you would immediately notice the several small dishes of food – mostly vegetables – set on your table.
These are banchan (반찬) – side dishes – and they are truly the hero we need. What makes them even better (besides the fact that they are both delicious and healthy, for the most part) is that you can ask for free refills. Much like soda in the United States, your waitress might even refill your banchan before you even finish it all.
Be still, my chubby heart.
Presented here is a guide of a few of my personal favorite banchan. It is in no way a complete encyclopedia to the myriad of Korean side dishes that bring light to this dark, cruel world, but it is a noble start.
Easily the most famous banchan is kimchi.
Kimchi, for those of you who don’t know, is vegetables, usually fermented but sometimes served fresh, seasoned with ingredients including but in no way limited to, red pepper, scallion, daikon, and fish sauce. The most common kimchi (such as the one pictured above) is made with Napa cabbage, though many other varieties exist, such as radish, scallion, and even cucumber (if you’re lucky!).
Even though it will make your entire fridge reek if sealed improperly, kimchi is eaten at nearly every Korean meal all year around.
Gagi Namul (가지나물)
Gagi namul is a gorgeous side dish for any table, both for the eyes and the palate. Deeply-colored purple eggplants are steamed and torn into bite-sized chunks. The one pictured above is topped with a salty, umami soybean-based sauce and loaded with nutty sesame seeds.
I’d date it.
Kkwarigochu Myulchi Bokkeum (꽈리고추 멸치 볶음)
Kkwarigochu Myulchi Bokkeum is mild shisito peppers stir-fried with fresh garlic slices and dried, salty, lightly killed anchovies. Dressed in a lightly sweet-and-salty sauce, this dish is absolutely bursting with flavor. Some people even eat it as a snack, though you might not want to kiss them afterwards.
The banchan in the pretty dish above is jangjorim: soy braised beef with quail eggs. Before moving to Korea, I would have never thought to pair pulled beef with eggs, but it is a magical marriage of two equally tasty partners. If you like protein and/or delicious, salty food, this is the banchan for you.
Shigumchi Namul (시금치 나물)
Shigumchi namul is blanched spinach with garlic, sesame oil, and a bit of soy sauce. The texture is two-fold: the leaves wilt down quickly, rendering them soft, but the cooking process is quick enough that the stems normally retain a bit of crunch. Sometimes (such as in the example pictured above) carrots are added for both their extra crunch and sweet flavor.
Eomuk Bokkum (어묵 볶음)
In the above picture are something little known to the Western palate: eomuk. This is the hot dog of the fish world. It’s made from mysterious parts, all ground up and smushed back together in a process that I choose not to question too heavily.
What I know is that eomuk bokkuum, stir-fried fish cakes, are delicious. They taste like MSG and sodium, which are both scrumptious even if doctors and television adverts warn against them. The one above is coated in a chili sauce for a bit of heat.
Kong Ja Bahn (콩자반)
Kong ja bahn is built of the humble black bean, slightly dehydrated so it’s both slightly tough and chewy, coated with a sweet dressing of sugar and soy. Its saccharine flavor creates a nice break from all of the salty, spicier neighbors on a Korean table.
Beosot Bokkeum (버섯 볶음)
If you haven’t caught on by now, “bokkum” means “stir-fried” in Korean, and that’s exactly how these mushrooms are prepared. They’re cooked up in sesame oil, salted, and often served with pretty orange carrots for both the perfect texture, flavor, and visual combination.
Kim is beauty in its simplicity.
All it is is dried sheets of salty, paper-thin seaweed, perfect for wrapping lovingly around your rice. Some restaurants even bring you a dish of soy sauce to dip your mini Korean burrito in, for extra salt and umami flavor.
Sometimes, it’s nice to get back to the basics.
There are scores of different banchan to be found that I’ve not talked about here. I strongly encourage you to shut down whatever device you are viewing this blog on and high-tail it to the nearest Korean eatery, and discover some of these delightful dishes for yourself.