By Kristina Meyer (trixie-pea)
I am a Seoul-born American; I was adopted when I was a wee thing and came to Chicago before I was six months old. Raised in a white, Midwestern suburban family, my only exposure to Korean culture were annual Korean adoptee picnics and the occasional trip to the late Bando restaurant on Lawrence Avenue or Sam-Mee in Lakeview. My folks would order chap chae and fondly watch me eat bulgogi and kimchi like I was an exhibit. Genes, they’d say – that’s why she likes it.
These familial dining scenes are great memories and stand in such stark contrast to my adult experiences, now that ajummas (ladies of a certain age) at any Korean eatery greet me with “Annyeong haseo!” as I walk in. I either answer back and get a string of questions in a language I don’t understand, or feel guilty for not being more Korean and fight the urge to explain why. Sorry, Korea! No hard feelings, though – it doesn’t mean I won’t enjoy my meal. Especially my banchan.
I guess you could call them side dishes, but I think that’s a major underselling of these intense punches of spice and salt. Plated on the table, banchan are edible pop art, and a gesture of Korean generosity. They’re the dishes that come with any meal you order in a Korean restaurant.
Because a restaurant will offer different combinations and variations on any given day, it’s hard to get your head around banchan. You don’t need to order it by name, and often raw versions of edibles like gobo root and weedy fern bracken look nothing like their raw counterparts. I have often resorted to calling the dishes “little fish thing” and “stinky tofu strips” and then lumped all the spicy, red items together into a generic kimchi bucket. So there’s no shame in others doing the same.
Nevertheless, curiosity and a personal mission of trying to identify with my roots impelled me to embark on creating a modest banchan primer. I simply wanted to identify each banchan dish and remember its Korean name.
What I learned: There is an organizational structure to banchan. Styles are based on preparation and/or cooking methods – and once you’ve broken the dishes down into categories, you find that those tiny trays of spicy-this and pickled-that don’t seem quite so random.
Kimchi | 김치
The most important of all banchan is kimchi, the national dish of Korea. Though there may be heavy rotation of the other types of banchan, you will always find kimchi on the table. Usually, at least three types are offered.
Some say at least 100 kimchi variations exist, but the alchemical process that unites this pickle starts with the same fundamental ingredients: salt, sugar, hot red pepper, garlic, ginger, green onion, and jeotgal, a salted condiment made of naturally fermented fish, shellfish, shrimp, oysters, or fish roe. The unique flavor of jeotgal is attained only after the sea creatures are salted and allowed to ferment for at least five months in a cool, airtight environment. Time, however, is what defines kimchi. The complex flavors come from layered lactic acid fermentation, while the jeotgal gives the pickle its undeniable and delicious umami funk.
Kimchi is defined by the season and the region in which it was made. Vegetable varieties, weather conditions, and access to the sea all affect the taste of a kimchi. Although there are micro-climates in Korea, the country’s weather as a whole tends to be much like the city of Chicago, hot and humid in the summer and wicked cold in the winter. The southern provinces tend to use more salt, spice, and seafood, so kimchi flavors are amplified. Meanwhile, northern kimchi tastes less salty and is very mild—like Louisiana gumbo versus New England clam chowder.
A Korean table is not complete without kimchi, and I have never been to a Korean restaurant in the U.S. where I wasn’t served at least two types. If nothing else, you will most likely be offered baechu kimchi (whole Napa cabbage kimchi), ggakduki (chopped radish kimchi) and oi sokbaegi (stuffed cucumber kimchi).
baechu kimchi 배추김치 whole nappa cabbage
ggakduki 깍두기 chopped radish
oi sokbaegi 오이 소배기 chive stuffed cucumber
Other kimchi varieties include:
chonggak kimchi 총각김치 bachelor or ponytail kimchi – young radish
gat kimchi 갓김치 mustard greens
muu mallaengi kimchi 무우말랭이 김치 dried radish
Sometimes jeotgal varieties are served as banchan:
guljeot 굴젓 preserved oyster
ojingeojeot 오징어젓 squid
yang nyum ge jang 양념 게장 crab
Namul | 나물 & Muchim | 무침
Namul and muchim are words often used interchangeably. Muchim literally means “mixture,” in this case referring to seasonings and spices. This category does include seafood and beef dishes, but namul is vegetarian only.
This type of banchan includes wild greens, a basic side dish for Koreans since 1000 A.D. when Buddhism was the state religion and animal consumption of any kind was banned. Cultivated vegetables and herbs were reserved for the rich and the royal, so everyone else ate naturally-thriving plants.
Because more than half of Korean is mountainous, to this day you will often see menu items translated simply as “mountain vegetable” – a term that can be used to refer to roughly 100 types of edible wild greens and vegetables, all of which are called namul. Namul dishes are lightly sautéed or blanched, and come delicately seasoned. Though they can be spiked with chili, they are usually flavored only with sesame, salt, and garlic.
oi muchim 오이 무침 cucumber salad
gaji namul 가지나물 marinated eggplant salad
ojingeochae muchim 오징어채 무침 shredded dried squid
sigumchi namul 시금치나물 spinach
sukju namul 콩나물 무침 soy bean sprouts
Jorim | 조림
In Korean, jorim means “simmer or boil down.” For these, many ingredients such as fish, seafood, meats, dubu (soybean curd/tofu) and vegetables are seasoned and braised in broth, or simmered with sweetened soy sauce until glazed. Common dishes include jang jorim, hunks of beef ribs braised in soy sauce with green chili peppers and hard-boiled eggs, and soy-simmered, glazed potatoes.
gamja jorim 감자 조림 potato
odeng jorim 오뎅 조림 fish cake
dubu jorim 감자 조림 tofu
yeongeun jorim 연근조림 lotus root
kongjorim 콩조림 soybean
Bokkeum | 볶음
Bokkeum are dishes with seasoned, chopped ingredients cooked quickly in hot oil. The wide variety of seasonings used include sesame oil, green onion, soy sauce, garlic, black pepper, sesame seeds, salt, ginger, a little alcohol and pickled fish sauce. Bokkeum as banchan are less common, but mushrooms and dried anchovies show up a quite a few tables around town.
buseot bokkeum 버섯볶음 mushroom
myeolchi bokkeum 멸치볶음 dried anchovy
hobak bokkeum 호박볶음 zucchini
Jeon | 전
These dishes include thinly sliced meats, fish, and vegetables that are either coated in flour, dipped in egg and pan-fried or mixed in batter and fried like pancakes. They are served during ordinary meals and special feasts alike, and are particularly popular as an accompaniment to drinking – to help soak up all the shochu and beer.
Some common jeon include potato, prawns, summer squash and spicy beef-stuffed green chili peppers. The most recognizable and popular pan fried dish may be pajeon (파전, or green onion pancake), which features endless variations depending on what the cook decides to add to the batter. At least in Chicago, the pajeon and its variants don’t usually come as banchan – hobakjeon (호박전, or fried zucchini disks) is often served instead.
Other Types of Banchan
A few other banchan types appear on occasion if you’re lucky. Gyeran jjim (계란찜, or steamed egg) is sometimes served, though more often you’ll get a rolled omelette stuffed with some veggie niblets and seaweed called gyeran malyee (계란말이) – if you get eggs at all.
Muk | 묵 is a typical Korean dish made from the starch of buckwheat, mung bean, or acorn. The starch is boiled until thick and cooled into a loaf. Unmolded, the muk blob is an opaque rubbery slab with a neutral taste. You see it often served crinkle-cut so the typical garnish (soy sauce, ginger, garlic and chile) has somewhere to pool. Like kimchi, muk is both regional and seasonal, so many different varieties appear. Hearty buckwheat muk is best served in the winter and is historically a late-night drinking snack. Dotorimuk (acorn) is best during mid-summer, while cheongpo (mung bean) muk is a spring dish. With modernization, muk has lost its seasonal aspect over the years.
So while there are endless variations of banchan, it’s easier to wrap your head around these small dishes if you think about them in terms of how they are prepared: fermented (kimchi), lightly sauteed, braised, pan-fried, stir-fried or steamed. And, if you ask for a little more of something by its Korean name, you can enjoy more of your favorite banchan. Maybe you’ll even experience the thrill of receiving an approving nod from a stern ajumma!