Banchan: The Story of the Korean Side Dish - Life & Thyme (2022)

Editor's Note

This story was made possible with the help of KCETLink, a national independent public media organization and our partners in the documentary series The Migrant Kitchen.

South Korea is roughly the size of Indiana (with 7.5 times its total population), and the 27th most populated country as of the 2016 census (one of the top 10 most populated cities is its capital, Seoul, hovering around 10 million and counting). It is divided into nine provinces and seven metropolitan cities, creating diverse dialects and regional cuisine. For a country that has only recently experienced a culinary boom stateside, there is a deep, rich history beyond the bevy of infamous green soju bottles and all-you-can-eat barbecue (which is a Westernized concept, by the way, since quality meat was, and still is, a premium item). And while Koreatown is one of the most densely packed districts within Los Angeles County, with more retail signage written in Korean Hangul and waves of Korean brands opening U.S. locations every day, the vastness of Korean cuisine is still unbeknownst to many locally.

Similar to Seoul itself, there are countless hidden gems and small businesses in every corner, and many families have planted roots and stayed in operation since the ‘80s and ‘90s. Through the turbulent Los Angeles riots and the rebuilding of communities, Korean immigrants have persevered and made an impact in shaping Los Angeles culture between Vermont and Crenshaw, from Beverly down to Olympic. Los Angeles has been a home away from home for many Koreans, and stylistic interpretations such as “L.A. Galbi” (a specific cut of short ribs) are now popular in Seoul as well.

Banchan: The Story of the Korean Side Dish - Life & Thyme (1)

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(Video) 8 Korean side dishes Banchan | SOULFOOD

Beyond the flashy 24-hour cafés and KBBQ restaurants lies an underbelly of true regional cuisine, ranging from traditional North Korean influences behind cold nengmyun noodles and handmade mandoo dumplings, to oceanic reverence in eondaegu jorim (braised black cod), bajirak kalgooksu (little neck clams with hand-cut noodles), and jeonbokjook (fresh abalone congee). And there are plenty of soups and stews for all seasonsthink samgyetang (Cornish hen stuffed with glutinous rice, ginseng, chestnut, dates, garlic), yukgyejang (spicy shredded brisket with bean sprouts, scallions, onions), and cheonggukjang (fermented soy bean stew)which are traditionally consumed during hot summers.

And let us not forget janchi, the traditional feast cuisine when grandmothers, mothers, aunts and sisters can really show off their skills. The likes of beautiful jeon (thin, savory pancakes made of seafood, mountainous greens or potato), a colorful array of banchan (small side dishes accompanied in every meal), and dduk (beloved rice cakes, often earthy and lightly sweet) decorate a family-style table setting.

Regionality and cultural tradition play large factors in what Koreans eat, how the food is prepared, and when it is consumed. But one thing is clear: Korean cuisine is, by definition, true family-style. It’s not heaps of food like a medieval buffet; rather, a communal gathering and sharing of entrees and sides, serving elders first, and refilling small plates and empty glasses with a sense of innate hospitality. It is a universal commonality that all ethnic cultures express history, tradition and celebration through food, and I dare say that every L.A. resident who has driven through K-Town has experienced it in one shape or form. That hospitality is represented by many traditions, but perhaps most evidently through the customary banchan service.

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Banchan: The Story of the Korean Side Dish - Life & Thyme (4)

(Video) Intro to Korean Side Dishes (Banchan)

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Banchan is an important part of Korean cuisine, from the most humble, simple dinner made at home to a full spread seen at janchi ceremonial celebrations and royal court cuisine. It is absolutely indispensable and alwaysalwaysaccompanies any and every meal. Even pubs and street food stalls will offer at least one or two small banchans because it is a definitive part of Korean cuisine. The larger the variety, the more it showcases a quality of care, service and economic stability.

Since Korea is located between mountainous terrains and a peninsula surrounded by three seas, it has a highly seasonal cuisine with a heavy focus on seafood, grains and vegetables (meat became more popular and accessible post-Mongol invasion and later with 19th century world trade). Historically, the strictly vegetarian Buddhist diet dictated much of the Goryeo dynasty (10th to 14th centuries), and practices of fermentation and pickling were seen as early as the prehistoric Three Kingdoms era. To this day, four full seasons are enjoyed in Korea, and it is natural for people to cook and eat based on the time of year (New Year, Lunar New Year and Chuseok Thanksgiving during autumn harvest are most significant).

The best way to understand banchan is by general categories of ingredients and preparation. An infinite variety of banchan can be grouped into the following culinary techniques: kimchi and jangajji (fermentation and pickling), namul muchim (lightly seasoned ingredients, in particular, vegetables, roots, sprouts), bokkeum (lightly sautéed or stir fried), jorim (braised in seasoned broth or sauce), and jjim (steamed). There is also a variety of jun (thinly pan-fried savory pancakes and small meat patties) that are associated with larger feasts rather than an everyday casual meal. Three in particular will always appear, no matter how great or humble the table setting: kimchi, namul muchim and jorim.

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Kimchi

Kimchi is the traditional side dish most commonly associated with Korean cuisine. It is the national dish of Korea, with a strongly significant cultural preparation (called gimjang, which is traditionally done in November and December). Today, we see kimchi refrigerators that perfectly control pressure and temperature for the modern-day household, no longer storing kimchi in outdoor hangari or underground stone jars for natural fermentation through all four seasons. Over 150 varieties have been quoted, ranging by seasonal vegetables, seasoning and region.

The common breakdown can be categorized as follows: cabbage (baechu, baek kimchi), radish (kkakduggi, dongchimi, chonggak), cucumber (oi sobagi), and greens (radish and mustard greens, green onion, chives). There are also varying levels of spice and seasoning—some are white with a subtle, sweet brine, while others are heavily seasoned with a lot of heat and seafood extract (which are most often shrimp, anchovy or oyster based). Most will include salt, garlic, gochugaru (ground chili pepper), ginger, scallions and spices in the initial brine.

(Video) 5 Ways to Enjoy Korean Breakfast Side Dishes BANCHAN

In line with seasonality, kimchi is also prepared and consumed within each quarter—spring and summer naturally bring lighter variety as well as a shorter brine, while autumn and winter mark the heavy preservation season to ferment and carry stock through the long stretch and into the new year. Gimjang is a tradition in which relatives and neighbors gather to prepare large quantities of kimchi from start to finish; it is a highly laborious task, most often undertaken by the women of the house. Certain homes (and restaurants) are highly revered for their particular kimchi, and neighbors earn bragging rights when their particular batch is especially delicious that winter.

Kimchi is also revered for its metabolic and digestive benefits. Seasonal ingredients provide a wide range of vitamins, while its natural fermentation produces highly sought-after probiotics. It is common to find kimchi among health and nutrition sources for foods with naturally occurring lactobacillus. The best part of kimchi is its versatility—when table banchan over-ripens into a sour flavor, it can then be cooked into kimchi fried rice (bokkeum bap), stew (jjigae), and savory pancake (jeon), to name a few. Similar to using ripened bananas for banana bread, the rich kimchi brings new flavor when cooked and stewed.

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Namul Muchim

Namul muchim covers a large variety of banchan due to the abundance of vegetation in Korea. Namul means vegetable or root; muchim means to season. It is a broad term for any and every dish prepared in this manner. Most vegetables and mountainous herbs are sautéed, seasoned, marinated, steamed, dried or even enjoyed semi-raw. This is where spreads will vary in seasonality and preference between homes and restaurants, from popular common dishes to highly skilled preparations. Most involve cooking oil (sesame), vinegar, soy and alliums, and common ingredients such as sprouts, shoots, root vegetables, hearty herbs, oceanic greens and radishes. Whether stir fried, pickled or lightly sweetened, using the entire ingredient is also important—the roots, stems, leaves, seeds, flowers and fruit. Most table settings will include a healthy variety in color and technique for a well-rounded meal.

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Jorim

Jorim is as common as bokkeum and jjim, but is particularly associated with specialized Korean dishes that require low and slow simmering in a seasoned sauce or marinade. This technique is applied to banchan (mostly vegetables, kimchi or tofu stew), as well as main entrees (most meat and seafood), often using a soy base. The seafood ingredients require stronger chili spices and aromatics to complement the flavor. Popular year-round jorim dishes include lotus root, burdock root, tofu, braised and shredded brisket, black cod and mackerel.

Lucky for Angelenos, Koreatown feels a bit like instantaneous travel to South Korea, thanks to the ethnic community bustling 24 hours a day, overflowing with hundreds of eateries, banchan-specific retail stores, and Korean markets that include freshly-made entrees and sides. In fact, several restaurants were featured specifically for their banchan quality in the Los Angeles Times in 2015, indicating the growing popularity and familiarity of Korean cuisine locally.

——

Discover Los Angeles’ Koreatown in The Migrant Kitchen

In Koreatown, the family behind Jun Won Restaurant faces the challenge of preserving the business they’ve built over two decades when they’re forced to close.

Watch The Migrant Kitchen: Banchan

——

Illustrations by Cesar Diaz

(Video) Eggplant and soy sauce side dish (가지나물)

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Published under Food, Reflections.
Tags: banchanjun wonkoreatownthe migrant kitchen

Words byAndrea Sung

FAQs

What is the purpose of banchan? ›

The Korean small plates called banchan (which literally translates to "side dishes,") are served ahead of the main course, but they're not appetizers. They represent a category unto themselves: snacks-within-a-meal that function as complements, contrasts, and condiments all at once. And they're totally necessary.

What is the important banchan in Korean food? ›

Kimchi is fermented vegetables, usually baechu (Napa cabbage), seasoned with chili peppers and salt. This is the essential banchan of a standard Korean meal. Some Koreans do not consider a meal complete without kimchi.

Why do Koreans have so many banchan? ›

Why do Koreans have so many side dishes? The idea of banchan dates back to times of Korean royal court cuisine, where a meal was said to be twelve dishes and accompanied with rice and soup. Today, banchan can consist of anywhere from two to twelve dishes; although cheaper restaurants serve less.

What does banchan mean in Korean? ›

What Does Banchan Mean? Banchan is a collection of Korean side dishes that dinner guests enjoy in Korea and around the world as a prelude to the main meal. Examples of banchan dishes include pickled radishes, scallion pancakes, and fermented cabbage, to name just a few.

How many types of banchan are there? ›

There are generally three main types of banchan – fresh vegetable banchan like namul or muchim; braised or soy sauce-based banchan called jorim; and well-preserved mit banchan like kimchi or jeotgal, that's usually on hand in large batches.

What do you drink with banchan? ›

And for white meats like pork belly, there is no better pairing than with a bottle of béarn blanc. The idea to start pairing wine with Korean food was built into the concept of the restaurant: a Korean barbecue spot in West LA.

Is it rude to ask for more banchan? ›

Don't ask for more banchan in a Korean restaurant, unless you're with a regular. Banchan, if you're not familiar, is a collection of traditional Korean side dishes that include kimchi, pickled vegetables, soup, and a few egg dishes, according to Tripzilla.

How long can you keep banchan? ›

Quick pickled vegetables will last in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. Other fresh vegetable banchan, be it raw, braised or seasoned, can last about 2-4 days in the refrigerator. This varies because some vegetables are simply more durable than others.

Do Koreans eat banchan with every meal? ›

Banchan is an important part of Korean cuisine, from the most humble, simple dinner made at home to a full spread seen at janchi ceremonial celebrations and royal court cuisine. It is absolutely indispensable and always — always — accompanies any and every meal.

How do you pronounce banchan in Korean? ›

BANCHAN: Korean Sidedishes (KWOW#26) - YouTube

What does Bapsang mean? ›

Bapsang means a table setting for meals to be enjoyed. The word Bapsang is made up of two words: Bap (Cooked rice or meal) and Sang (table). Every meal is built around rice. It's the foundation of the meal The typical Korean table consists of rice, soup or stew and several side dishes.

Are Korean side dishes healthy? ›

Korean cuisine is characterized by plenty of vegetables, rice, and meat or fish. Meals are often served with a variety of small sides, broth-based soups, and fermented cabbage (kimchi). It's generally considered healthy and known for incorporating many health-promoting ingredients like fermented foods.

Is banchan eaten cold? ›

Because many of the banchan are served cold, rather than preparing many for a meal at once, a couple of banchan might be prepared each day, and then enjoyed in small portions over several days. The flavours are fresh, simple, light, and spicy – food to feel good after.

What is a Korean side dish? ›

Banchan (side dishes) are an iconic part of Korean cuisine. They're served with just about every meal, and they're meant to be shared with everyone eating. They may seem insignificant at first glance compared to the rest of the meal, but they're packed with flavor.

What is best to drink with Korean food? ›

For Korean Meals With Spicy Main Dishes

A dry, light Riesling or a crisp Sauvignon Blanc are choices for Korean meals that are heavier on the spice than usual. Nothing too sweet, fruity, or complex. Avoid heavy red wines.

What is the best Korean alcohol? ›

Soju is a clear, low-alcohol, distilled spirit that is the most popular liquor in Korea. If you haven't heard of it, well then you've got a blind spot, because it's been the best-selling liquor in the world, according to CNN.

What beer is good with Korean food? ›

Hite. Probably the most common Korean beer outside of Korea, Hite is a very standard pale lager brewed with rice. At 4.3%, it's light, refreshing, and easy to drink. The most redeeming quality of Hite is that it pairs well with spicy food.

How do you eat banchan? ›

One of the easiest ways to enjoy all this banchan is with a bowl of rice. Just take some banchan, put it on your rice, and proceed to eat. While this can often be a meal at home, if you're at a restaurant, it's likely that you've ordered other dishes. I would wait to do the bulk of your eating during the main course.

Is burping rude in Korea? ›

You might have known about slurping with the amount of Korean dramas you consume regularly. But burping, or even farting, in public is not frowned upon. Burping is actually considered a sign of appreciation for the food. Chefs like it if you do it.

How do you ask for more banchan in Korean? ›

반찬 더 주세요. Banchan duh juseyo. Please give me/us more side dishes.

Can you make banchan ahead of time? ›

This recipe not only comes together in minutes, but it also can be made in advance and refrigerated for up to 3 days. So whether you need some more greenery in your bringing-lunch-from-home routine or an easy, tasty side dish for your next dinner party, sigeumchi namul has got you covered.

What veggies go with Korean BBQ? ›

So you want to have a Korean BBQ but not sure where to start? Some great suggestions include Korean Potato Salad, Spicy Cucumber Salad, Korean Egg Rolls, or Stir-Fried Cabbage. Just remember that many Korean dishes are spicy, so you'll want to balance out the menu for guests who prefer milder flavors!

How long does spinach side dish last in the fridge? ›

Cooked spinach lasts in the fridge for up to 3 days or in the freezer for ten months. But it's best to eat it within 24 hours of cooking for the best flavor and texture.

What do Koreans say before eating? ›

If you feel confident in your Korean, you can say 'jal meokkessumnida' (잘 먹겠습니다 ) before the meal — similar to the Japanese itadakimasu, it roughly translates to 'I will eat well'. After the meal, you can say 'jal meogeosseumnida' (잘 먹었습니다) to signal that you have indeed eaten well and are happy.

Why do Koreans eat on the floor? ›

In the past, most Korean households had people sit on the floor to eat their meals. This custom was prevalent under the pretext that sitting on the floor leads to a calm and peaceful state of mind and encourages a sense of belonging.

Why do Koreans have such good skin? ›

Since ancient times, Koreans have only used natural, harsh-free ingredients for their skincare routines: green tea, “snail slime”, bamboo extracts, propolis, and honey are just some examples of the elements they used and have passed through generations.

What do Koreans eat for breakfast? ›

A typical Korean breakfast is not that much different than the other meals of the day, except maybe a bit on the lighter side (or with fewer banchan, or side dishes). Rice, a small bowl of soup or stew, and any number of banchan would typically make up the first meal of the day.

What is the Korean side dish made of salted fermented vegetables called? ›

Kimchi (/ˈkɪmtʃiː/; Korean: 김치, romanized: gimchi, IPA: [kim. tɕʰi]), is a traditional Korean side dish of salted and fermented vegetables, such as napa cabbage and Korean radish.

What is a Korean side dish crossword clue? ›

The crossword clue Korean side dish with 7 letters was last seen on the January 01, 2011.
...
Korean Side Dish Crossword Clue.
RankWordClue
94%KIMCHEEKorean side dish
38%KIMCHISpicy Korean side dish
3%RICE___ and beans (side dish)
3%WONSouth Korean currency
16 more rows

How do you pronounce Panchan? ›

PANCHAM - HOW TO PRONOUNCE IT!? - YouTube

How do you pronounce Bibimbap in Korean? ›

How to Pronounce Bibimbap? (CORRECTLY) Korean Dish Name ...

Is banchan vegan? ›

Banchan - K33 Kitchen – Delicious plant-based vegan recipes.

What is kimchi cabbage? ›

Some of you may still be unfamiliar with kimchi even though it's become highly popular in the last 15 years here in the west. It's basically spicy, fermented cabbage, kind of like sauerkraut, but with Korean flavors – garlic, ginger & Korean chilies. Kimchi is like the heart and soul of Korean cooking.

What does Bapsang mean? ›

Bapsang means a table setting for meals to be enjoyed. The word Bapsang is made up of two words: Bap (Cooked rice or meal) and Sang (table). Every meal is built around rice. It's the foundation of the meal The typical Korean table consists of rice, soup or stew and several side dishes.

How do you eat banchan? ›

One of the easiest ways to enjoy all this banchan is with a bowl of rice. Just take some banchan, put it on your rice, and proceed to eat. While this can often be a meal at home, if you're at a restaurant, it's likely that you've ordered other dishes. I would wait to do the bulk of your eating during the main course.

How long can you keep banchan? ›

Quick pickled vegetables will last in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. Other fresh vegetable banchan, be it raw, braised or seasoned, can last about 2-4 days in the refrigerator. This varies because some vegetables are simply more durable than others.

What is the most popular side dish in Korea? ›

Spicy Bellflower Root Salad (Doraji Muchim)

Try this one of the most popular Korean side dishes – Spicy Bellflower Root Salad! To locals, this dish is known as Doraji Muchim (도라지 무침) or Doraji Saengchae (도라지 생채). It may be a lesser known side dish to many of you, nonetheless, it is commonly seen at a Korean's table.

How do you pronounce banchan in Korean? ›

BANCHAN: Korean Sidedishes (KWOW#26) - YouTube

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