Banchan in New York

a guide to korean side dishes

By Wendy Wong

Onex

(Photographs by Wendy Wong)

If you’ve eaten in Korean restaurants, you’ve come to expect that after ordering, an assortment of small dishes—called banchan—will be set down in front of you. Many people mistake them for small appetizers, but banchan are actually an integral part of Korean meals.

This virtual handbook of banchan will introduce some common dishes, tell you where to find them in New York and show you how to incorporate them into your next Korean dining experience.

Banchan Rule #1: Eat them alongside your meal

Naomi Imatome, who writes about Korean food for About.com, says that banchan traditionally provide a balance of textures and flavors, which reflect four of the basic elements of taste: bitter, sour, sweet and salty. There should also be a mix of spicy and non-spicy flavors.

This is evident at Hahm Ji Bach, a restaurant in Flushing, Queens, which offers an unusually large spread of fresh banchan. On a recent visit, 12 different dishes were set out for two diners. These included a spicy squash dish that was salty and lightly crisp, mayonnaise-glazed apple and raisin salad, steamed tofu topped with sesame seeds and soy-chili sauce, lightly seasoned, palate-cleansing bean sprouts and a dish of anchovies and peanuts that was slightly sweet and equal parts fishy and salty. If you’re grilling meat, you’ll also receive gyeran jjim, a steamed egg casserole that arrives at the table still bubbling in a stone pot.

Hahm Ji Bach’s banchan rotates depending on the availability of seasonal ingredients. Their special crab kimchi, for instance, is not available during the winter, when crab is not in season.

Banchan Rule #2: There are several distinct types

In namul (aka muchim) dishes, the star ingredient is usually a vegetable that has been lightly marinated or seasoned, then steamed, sautéed or blanched. Dishes seasoned and braised in broth or simmered with sweetened soy sauce until glazed are called jorim. Those that are chopped and stir-fried (often with chili paste, garlic, green onion and other strong flavors) are called bokkeum.

Among the condiments and spices commonly used to season banchan are ganjang (Korean soy sauce), gochujang (spicy, slightly sweet and savory red chili paste made with glutinous rice, fermented soybeans, and salt), gochugaru (red chili powder), a variety of vinegars, garlic, ginger, green onions and nutty sesame oil.

Kimchi, fermented vegetables that are a staple of Korean meals, is another distinct type of banchan. There are more than 300 varieties of kimchi featuring different ingredients, such as young radish, green onion, cubed radish, or napa cabbage with raw oysters. Several types of kimchi are typically included in banchan. (Insider tip: The quality of a restaurant’s kimchi often indicates how good or bad the rest of its food will be.)

At any H Mart, a Korean supermarket chain with locations throughout New York City and New Jersey, you’ll find a dedicated kimchi section stocked with many different sizes and types of the fermented dish—from small jars and mid-size bins to giant plastic bags that can be lugged home and stored for a long time.

Banchan Rule #3: They are usually vegetable or seafood dishes

Korea was predominantly Buddhist (and vegetarian) during the Koryo dynasty (935 to 1392 CE). Consequently, vegetables became central to each meal, and this tradition has continued to influence banchan. In addition, Imatome notes that Korea is a mountainous peninsula full of wild plants and herbs. Vegetables grow well in the country’s climate, so both fresh and fermented dishes are abundant year-round.

The H Mart on Union Street in Flushing, Queens, has several refrigerated sections dedicated to banchan (many of which are vegetarian). Seasoned dandelion greens, seaweed salad, dotorimuk (acorn jelly, a smooth gelatinous food made with acorn starch, which has a slightly nutty and bitter taste) and mumallaengi muchim (spicy stir-fried dry radish) are among the supermarket’s standard banchan options. You can also find stir-fried anchovies (in both hot and mild versions), salted and fermented raw squid, fermented octopus and pollock.

Bring H Mart’s banchan home to pair with future meals or eat some alongside an order at Namoodol, the in-store canteen (conveniently located next to the banchan section).

Banchan trace their origins to Korea’s royal courts, where they were regarded as both a symbol of wealth (higher-status royals received more banchan) and a means of sampling numerous dishes in a single meal. During extravagant feasts, royals often ate at individual tables—large enough to fit an entrée, soup, rice and at least nine different kinds of banchan.

These days banchan are commonly shared, but the principle of sampling widely among many different flavors remains unchanged. Thankfully, you don’t have to be dining in a royal court to enjoy this Korean food mainstay.

Hahm Ji Bach
41-08 149th Pl (map)
Queens, NY 11355

H Mart
29-02 Union St (map)
Queens, NY 11354
Other locations in New York and New Jersey found here


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