By Eric Kim, The New York Times
In Min Jin Lee’s 2017 novel “Pachinko,” a restaurant owner approaches the protagonist, Sunja, after hearing of her famous kimchi. Sunja’s reputation preceding her, the owner hires her on the spot to supply his restaurant’s banchan — the small side dishes that often accompany a Korean meal.
“Any fool can make a marinade and grill meat,” he tells her, “but the customer needs a fine array of banchan to make him feel like he’s dining like a king, wouldn’t you say?”
Banchan are one of the great joys of Korean cuisine, complementing the entree, such as a grilled meat or a bubbling stew, but treasured in their own right. Many people like to eat them as appetizers, though they’re meant to go alongside the rest of the meal. Most restaurants serve them on the house, as a gesture of hospitality.
During the Joseon dynasty in Korea, which lasted from 1392 to 1910, the court served multiple daily meals to the king, including a royal table (called surasang) that consisted of 12 banchan — plus rice, soup and other dishes.
Some restaurants today come close to this regality, even making banchan the focus of the meal. The Odae Mountain restaurant, in the Gangwon province of South Korea, serves nearly 20 different banchan as a set menu, highlighting the various vegetables, herbs and edible grasses of the region. In New York, at Atoboy, chef Junghyun Park offers a prodigious selection of shareable small plates.
Similarly, at home, you can make banchan the star of your own meal. And the best part is this: You don’t need a bounty for your spread to feel like the stuff of royalty.
The key is in planning ahead. Banchan-style home cooking is cumulative, which is to say, you might make one or two dishes at a time and keep leftovers in the fridge. The point is that you’re amassing a store of banchan so that, come dinnertime, all that’s left to do is steam the rice and take out your stash.
Some banchan can be eaten as soon as you make them. But others are meant to be eaten later, stemming from historic methods of preservation. On the Korean Peninsula, food often had to be preserved, especially with salt, to last through the long, grueling winters. That’s why fermentation is central to many banchan, like kimchi, pickles and jeotgal, or salted seafood.
Ultimately, banchan is a big word with multiple categories. Much of it is inherently vegetable-forward, a lasting result of Korea’s Buddhist and agricultural history. Many namul, or seasoned vegetable, preparations require just a quick steam or boil before tossing in sesame oil, garlic and salt. Spinach, soybean sprouts and bracken fiddleheads (called gosari in Korean) are among the most common namul banchan, though any farmers market produce would sing under this gentle treatment.
As the selection of banchan can look different at every restaurant, so, too, can it vary in every home. That’s because many things can be banchan, some much less traditional than others. (Fried Spam and eggs are regular staples in my banchan repertoire, for instance, as are sliced chicken, broccoli and Cheddar Hot Pockets.)
If there were any rule to banchan, it would be that there should be a sense of harmony in the spread: a variety of vegetables to balance the meat, and something salty, sour, spicy and sweet. But at the end of the day, it’s your bansang, or table setting. Fill it with the flavors and textures you love most.
Maybe you crave jangjorim, a popular soy sauce-simmered beef dish with boiled eggs and green chiles. (Fat, juicy jalapeños taste lovely here, though kkwarigochu, or shishito peppers, are more common.) Gamja salad is a crowd-favorite potato banchan studded with colorful vegetables, most regularly mounded with an ice cream scoop. Following my mother’s lead, I like to pan-fry Korean eggplants and finish them with a sticky red gochujang glaze. There are few better accompaniments to a bowl of freshly steamed white rice.
And the rice is important, as it’s the blank canvas on which the salty, sweet, flavor-packed banchan can serve as a counterpoint. It’s even your plate, the pillow-soft bed on which to rest a single sliver of kimchi or a crisp sheet of gim, the roasted seaweed snack.
In American cuisine, the labels “main” and “side” determine some level of hierarchy between courses. But in the prismatic world of banchan, both rice and banchan are principal players, with neither relegated to supporting-role status.
You may not need 20 plates to feel like royalty. Three may suffice. Some would even say it’s a magic number.
Recipe: Jalapeño Jangjorim With Jammy Eggs
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Total time: 2 hours, plus cooling
- Ice, as needed
- 5 large eggs
- 1 pound beef brisket, cut into 3-inch cubes
- 1/2 medium yellow onion, unpeeled
- 2 large scallions, halved crosswise
- 1 (5-inch) square dasima (dried kelp)
- 1 (2-inch) piece fresh ginger, unpeeled and thinly sliced
- 1 cup low-sodium soy sauce
- 3 packed tablespoons dark brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon mirin
- 4 large jalapeños, halved lengthwise, deseeded if you don’t like heat
- 7 large garlic cloves, peeled
1. In a medium pot over high heat, bring 6 cups water to a boil. Set up an ice bath in a medium bowl.
2. Using a spoon, gently lower the eggs into the boiling water, reduce the heat to medium-high and cook at a moderate boil for 8 minutes. Immediately transfer the eggs into the ice bath. Let the eggs cool for 5 minutes, then peel and set aside.
3. Gently nestle the beef brisket into the pot of hot water; add the onion, scallions, dasima and ginger. Bring to a boil again, then reduce the heat to medium and cook at a gentle boil until the meat is tender, about 1 1/2 hours.
4. Using a pair of tongs, transfer the meat onto a cutting board and let cool slightly. As the meat cools, strain the broth through a fine-mesh strainer into a large bowl and discard the aromatics. Add 3 cups of broth back to the pot. (Any remaining broth can be reserved for soup or noodles.) Add the soy sauce, brown sugar and mirin to the pot and stir until combined. With your hands, shred the beef into thin strands and add to the pot as well.
5. Bring the pot to a boil and cook over medium-high heat until the soy sauce brine reduces slightly, about 10 minutes. Nestle in the peeled eggs along with the jalapeños and garlic. Turn off the heat and let the mixture cool completely.
6. Serve at room temperature. (If preparing in advance, transfer the mixture to a resealable container, such as a Mason jar, and keep in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. This dish tastes great cold, straight out of the fridge.)
Recipe: Gamja Salad With Cucumber, Carrot and Red Onion
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Total time: 40 minutes
- 1 Kirby cucumber, deseeded and cut into 1/4-inch cubes
- 1/2 medium red onion, very finely diced
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
- 1 medium carrot, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch cubes
- 1 large russet potato (about 1 pound), peeled and cut into 2-inch cubes
- 1 large egg
- 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon mayonnaise (preferably Hellmann’s)
- 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon rice vinegar
- Freshly ground black pepper
1. In a small bowl, combine the cucumber, red onion and 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Set aside to sweat slightly.
2. Bring a medium pot of salted water to a boil. Add the carrot and cook until tender-crisp, 2 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon or fine-mesh sieve and set aside.
3. Add the cubed potato and egg to the boiling water. Cook the egg for 10 minutes and the potatoes until fork-tender, 15 to 20 minutes. While the potato finishes cooking, run the hard-boiled egg under cold tap water. Peel the egg, finely chop it, then add it to a medium bowl. When the potato is cooked, transfer to the bowl with the egg and mash with a fork until uniform.
4. Add the mayonnaise, sugar and vinegar to the mashed potato mixture and stir to coat. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Squeeze the salted cucumber and red onion with your hands (discarding any liquid), and fold them into the potato and egg mixture along with the cooked carrot.
5. To serve, scoop the potato salad onto a plate using an ice cream scoop, and eat warm or at room temperature. (To store for later, transfer to a resealable container and keep in the refrigerator for 3 to 5 days. This salad even tastes great cold, straight out of the fridge.)
Recipe: Gochujang-Glazed Eggplant With Fried Scallions
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Total time: 45 minutes
- 1 pound Asian eggplant (about 3 large; preferably Korean, or Chinese or Japanese), halved lengthwise and cut into 4- to 5-inch segments
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons gochujang
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 2 packed teaspoons dark brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
- 2 garlic cloves, finely grated
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 4 scallions, trimmed, cut into 3-inch segments, then very thinly sliced lengthwise, white and green parts separated
1. Place the eggplant in a colander set inside a large bowl or the sink. Sprinkle with the salt, toss to combine and let sit for 30 minutes to remove excess moisture.
2. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, add the gochujang, soy sauce, brown sugar, sesame oil and garlic. Whisk to combine, then set aside.
3. To a large nonstick skillet, add the olive oil and the white parts of the scallions. Turn the heat to medium and fry the scallions, stirring often, until crispy and evenly browned, about 8 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the fried scallions onto a paper towel.
4. Reserve a small handful of raw scallion greens for garnish, then fry the remaining scallion greens in the oil until crispy and lightly browned, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer fried scallion greens onto a paper towel.
5. Remove the skillet from the heat and carefully pour the hot scallion oil into a glass container or measuring cup.
6. After the 30 minutes of salting, dry the eggplant segments with a paper towel. Place the skillet over medium-high heat and add 2 tablespoons of the reserved scallion oil.
7. When the oil starts to shimmer and you see a wisp of smoke, add half the eggplant, cut sides down, and fry until browned and starting to soften, 2 to 3 minutes. Flip once and cook another minute on the other side. Transfer to a plate, add 2 more tablespoons of scallion oil back to the pan, and repeat to fry the second batch of eggplants. (If you are lucky enough to have any scallion oil left, use it to fry eggs or to dress a salad.)
8. Finally, sauce the eggplants: Add the first batch of eggplants back to the pan alongside the second batch. Reduce the heat to medium-low and pour the reserved gochujang sauce over the eggplants. Toss until evenly coated and the gochujang starts to caramelize, about 1 minute.
9. Plate the eggplants on a large platter and garnish with the fried scallions and the reserved raw scallion greens. Serve immediately. (To store for later, transfer to a resealable container and keep in the refrigerator for 3 to 5 days. This dish tastes great cold, straight out of the fridge or at room temperature.)