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What Is Banchan?

Dan Harkins
Dan Harkins

The small-plate, meze or tapas craze in many 21st century gourmet cultures has been evolving over many centuries in Korea. Called banchan, this is the ring of appetizers or side dishes that accompanies the main courses. It is made up of some soup, white rice and several small plates offering a range of culinary delights and a diverse view of the local cooking culture. After diners have sampled these dishes, the main courses are served at the center of the table.

Though the food toward the middle of the table is either chosen by diners or the chef, certain foods are standard every time. The first of these common accompaniments is white rice. Another is a tang, guk or jjigae style of soup, which comprise dozens of choices combining various local vegetables, meats and herbs in several types of broth.

Woman baking cookies
Woman baking cookies

Along with these staples are the banchan plates. A few types are customary, such as kimchi, which can be any number of pickled vegetable medleys, available for service immediately upon a diner's arrival. A popular kimchi is called ggakdugi, which is just pieces of radish soaked in vinegar, chiles and fresh herbs. Another regular is called oijangajji, which is vinegar-fermented pickle slices that are spicy, salty, sweet and bitter all at once.

Other types of offerings are seasoned, cooked vegetable medleys, called namul. Another class is called bokkeum, which is a tiny stir fry of vegetables and meats. Dishes called jeon are the pan-fried varieties, while jjim dishes are steamed.

These are just the major divisions of banchan preparations though. Other common dishes range from pan-fried pancakes and stock-simmered tofu to soy-soaked beef strips and braised seafood with radishes. In total, dozens of varieties are available. Sometimes diners choose their banchan from a menu. The chef decides the dishes though, when hosting a meal or catering an event. In some settings, just a few banchan are served as free hors d'oeuvre before the meal. On other occasions, there may be a dozen or more small plate dishes on the table.

Though the portion sizes for these side dishes are typically small, they are customarily refilled throughout a meal as the food is eaten. In this way, these are both appetizers and side dishes to be eaten either before and alongside an entree. Diners are expected to share the banchan and conversation stirred with each new flavor combination.

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