What’s Korean BBQ without the side dishes?

asianave January 17, 2012 Comments Off

Banchan (pronounced “bonchon”) refers to the assorted side dishes served along with a main course in Korean cuisine.

To get the most banchan, you must try Korean barbecue. The main course of the Korean barbecue experience is no doubt, the meat. However, surrounding the center grill on the table beside a large plate of marinated raw meat, pancakes and various pastes, at least 10 white palm-sized dishes look like mini-salads are served. These tapa-like dishes are Banchan.

According to Wiki, Korean dinner parties can be classified by the number of dishes served. A royal Korean dinner includes 12 dishes, normally with an order of Korean barbecue meats and pancakes. It is not just a delightful meal, but a royal treat with grandeur.

Today, most banchan in restaurants are green and cold. Based on American food culture, banchan can be categorized as salad.

The most common banchan is kimchi, fermented vegetables, usually Napa cabbage and daikon, stuffed with a mix of garlic, salt, vinegar, chili peppers and other spices. It is said that Koreans eat so much of this super spicy condiment, at an average of 40 pounds per person each year. Kimchi to Koreans is similar to hamburgers to Americans and pizzas to Italians.

For a person that is not a fan of hot fermented vegetables, banchan includes many other selections, such as fresh radish and cucumber, cooked spinach, soy bean sprouts, potato, lotus root, eggplant, burdock, sea weed, egg and fried tofu cube. Some restaurants may provide banchan with squid, octopus and fish cake. With such a variety of selection, you will find one you like.

When I first experienced Korean barbecue, I had no idea that an order of barbecue would come with so many banchan dishes. The waitress pushing a steel cart full of banchan came to the table. The steel cart serving table to table reminded me of dim sum, a type of Chinese food served in small steamer baskets or plates. Each dim sum plate costs $2 to $4 dollars.

I thought this was a Korean barbecue restaurant, not dim sum. I was coming to enjoy meat tonight and was not planning to order plates of salad. After the waitress put four dishes onto the table, I told her, “these are enough.”

The waitress paid no attention to me as she continued to bring more banchan from the cart to the table. Before I yelled for her to stop, my friend told me, “these are free.”

I was astonished.

How can the restaurant offer so many dishes to its guests with no charge? Even though the plates are small and the quantity is bite-sized, the time to prepare them is not free.

American food has side dishes too. A customer may order appetizers and side dishes with the main entree. Before the main entree is served, guests often also enjoy a salad, but salad in American dining is usually not free.

Some Chinese restaurants may serve guests free small dishes such as salted fried peanuts or spicy cucumbers. These dishes are similar to banchan, but they are served before the main course more like an appetizer. Banchan are not only free, but served along the entire meal. You can replenish any of your favorite banchan at any time.

My Korean friend told me that the banchan served at local Korean restaurants is how it is typically served in the home. In a normal meal at home with just family members on an ordinary day, the Korean housewife may prepare three to five different types of banchan. These dishes are supposed to be shared and contained in the plates of much larger sizes than restaurants’. Everyone around the table eat rice with banchan.

When a guest is invited, there is a large bowl of steamed rice served in front of the guest. Whether the guest can finish the rice is irrelevant. It would be rude to give the guest anything less than a large bowl of piling rice and five dishes of banchan.

Back in the old days, it was also considered polite for the guest to leave a few grains of rice in the bowl at the end of the dinner. This signifies the hospitality of the host who had provided more than enough for the guest to eat.

Unlike Chinese or Japanese customs, Koreans use a long spoon to eat rice. Korean restaurants equip the customers with both spoon and chopsticks. You are expected to use the spoon for rice. Don’t sit there and struggle eating the rice with chopsticks. Chopsticks are used for the consumption of banchan. Be aware that traditional Korean chopsticks are metal and rectangular, and typically heavier than Chinese and Japanese chopsticks, which are round and made of bamboo.

After my first go at Korean barbecue two years ago, I have been to many Korean barbecue restaurants. Ironically, at each new restaurant I’ve visited, what excites me most is not how juicy and tender the barbecue is prepared, but what new banchan I can find.

The great thing is that banchan is served in small portions, perfect for sharing and sampling just a bite or two.

For the dishes you dislike, you can put them aside without a guilty feeling of wasting food. For the dishes you do like, you can ask for more. Banchan tastes best with meat and rice. For Korean barbecue banchan are as important as the meat itself. They cut the richness and round out the meal so you don’t finish feeling sick and stuffed with meat, but rather satisfied and suprisingly light.

While South Korean government continues to give a great deal of efforts to popularize Korean cuisine around the world, some Korean media have raised an issue around banchan, suggesting that charging for them would create higher demand for the items. Customers would pay more attention to food that is paid for and in turn, it would reduce food waste. A modest fee for banchan could increase the popularity of particular dishes with careful menu designing, marketing and advertising.

It sounds like these Korean media channels would even open a restaurant serving banchan only. Banchan are great because they offer a unique opportunity for the chef to demonstrate the creativity of cooking ordinary food ingredients. Once banchan are put on the menu and must be prepared as they are advertised, banchan will eventually be stereotyped. It will make eating Korean food less enjoyable.

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