Banchan 반찬

Don’t let the main course distract your attention from all the delicious side dishes on the table.

Words by ciaran hickey, executive chef of the w seoul walkerhill

For me the single biggest difference between Western and Korean mealtimes has to be the array of side dishes presented with every meal here. These small plates, Banchan, can range from 3 to whatever number the table will hold. They are eaten with the main dish of rice etc.

The important thing to know is that Banchan are to be shared by the whole table, generally restaurants will refill them and they should be finished by the end of the meal.

Banchan are generally split into categories according to the cooking process, here are a few of my favorites.

Of the fermented foods of course kimchi is the king; it’s unusual to see a meal without it. While the cabbage version is the stable and the most common, the white radish, ggakdugi is my favourite.You will recognize this as it is cut in easy to pick up cubes, the crunch and spice making it so popular.

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Vegetables, herbs and roots that have been cooked, marinated and served cold are referred to as “namul”. I have learnt that this term covers an absolute multitude of varieties as each region and even town has its own local versions. Everywhere I go there is a new one to try. I really like kong namul, bean sprouts blanched and tossed in sesame oil. Spinach leaves in garlic is also another one of my favorites. I learned to make both of these at my one and only Korean Cuisine cooking class last year.

Some side dishes are braised or simmered dishes of meat that are served cold. Of these I really enjoy jangjorim. We make it here with beef brisket simmered in a light broth with soy and served with quails eggs cooked in the same broth. The brown colored quail’s eggs were a surprise to me but I have grown to love them, the only drawback being they are a nightmare to pick up with chopsticks.

Small cooked dishes called “Bokkeum” are among some of the surprises. It’s always a lottery as to what you will get and I spent a lot of early time here asking repeatedly, What’s in that one there? Anything with pork belly is always ok with me but I do tend to steer clear of the dishes with more personality, like octopus or anchovy.

The wonderful little Korean Pancakes Jeon that everyone loves are also part of the Banchan dynasty. They come in a multitude of pretty colors and are great for taking the edge off the heat of some of their neighbors on the table. They are very useful also for picking up small pieces of pork belly and kimchi to make mini sandwiches.

So everything from tofu to dried anchovies and marinated fish intestines, to coleslaw style salads make the sheer diversity of Banchan so interesting, you just have to find your own favorites. Remember it’s not poor etiquette to skewer a quail’s egg after 12 attempts to pick it up with chopsticks!