Eat Korea: Banchan in Seoul
By: Odessa Denby
When most people think of Korean cuisine, they think of kimchi. In recent years, kimchi has become a fad food in America, but it has been enriching the Korean diet for, some say, a thousand years. The dish certainly has a unique flavor—something akin to a sauerkraut enriched with chili peppers. However, what most people don’t realize is that kimchi comes in many forms, and though it’s a central dish, it’s only one part of a rich food tradition of side dishes (banchan).
Your average Korean meal generally consists of a grilled meat or fish or a stew served with rice and accompanied by several side dishes. The rice is almost always served plain and unseasoned, though it can be combined with barley or beans. The bland steamed rice is meant to balance out the spicy or salty foods you may be eating. Two common sauces you’ll find in your side dishes are gochu-chan and dwinjeon. Gochu-chan is a spicy, but sweet red pepper paste you’ll find in everything. The red pepper is also used to season kimchi. Dwinjeon is a lightly feremented soybean paste used as both a soup based and a dipping sauce. Some restaurants and shops specialize in the extra fermented soybean paste and you can smell it from quite a distance. Most visitors to Korea opt for the milder version that you’ll find in any family restaurant or barbecue place.
With the interest of balance in mind, if your main dish is oily, like the greasy black bean noodles that single people use to celebrate “black day” with, your dish will be served with a large amount of pickled side dishes. A plate of vibrant yellow pickled radish slices is supposed to help cut the oil and aid your digestion. In a meat heavy meal, such as Korean barbecue, your sides will be mainly vegetables. Perhaps raw marinated onions, greens tossed in sesame oil, boiled seasoned potato, garlic, green onion salad, marinated quail eggs, and seaweed are common sides that you can mix into your main dish or enjoy separately on their own.
But, of course, every table will have kimchi. The most common form of kimchi is the basic cabbage kimchi, seasoned with salt, garlic, and gochu, fermented for several months. You can buy it at any market. The traditional outdoor markets will usually make their own home recipe, but you can also buy a more mass produced kimchi in any supermarket. Many people, especially the matriarchs of Korean families still make kimchi at a home. Kimchi making season is in the winter, typically around December. Walking through residential areas, you can smell the pungent aroma of fresh kimchi wafting through the streets from garages, rooftops, courtyards, and terraces.
Here are a few of the various forms of kimchi you might encounter on your Korean table:
Spring Kimchi: This is a less fermented form of kimchi, a young or fresh kimchi. It has a more vibrant spiciness. It also still has a green color that fades as it ferments for longer.
Old Kimchi: This kimchi has been left to ferment much longer. It as a more sour taste, the spice is less pronounced. Often, this is the strong kimchi used as the base for kimchi jjigae—kimchi stew.
Mu Kimchi: The base of the this kimchi is not cabbage, but “mu” or daikon radish. It has a firm, crunchy texture and is often cut into little cubes.
Pah Kimchi: “Pah” or green onion is sometimes sliced and turned into kimchi as well. The sharp, onion flavor balances will with the sweet and spicy peppers.
In Korea, sides are at the discretion of the house depending on what’s in season and what the market has had in supply. As you eat you, your banchan are refilled for free, so fill up on the variety of tastes and textures that sit at the center of your table. At a Korean meal, the side dishes can turn a simple soup and bowl of rice into a feast.
Odessa Denby is a writer and ESL teacher currently living in Seoul, South Korea. Some of her work has been featured in Outside Culture Magazine, Renaissance, Pitch, and Slipstream Magazine. She lives in a basement working on her novel and dreams of someday living in an apartment that gets sunlight. She is addicted to tea and likes to experiment with cooking foods that are not rice in her rice cooker. When time and funds allow, she travels the world and she blogs about her adventures at wanderlustified.wordpress.com