When I think about what makes Korean food so incredibly special, the first thing that springs to mind is banchan.
Banchan are the myriad shared side dishes that come gratis with every traditional Korean meal, whether a grand banquet dinner a humble home-cooked affair.
There are so many different types of banchan, you’ll likely be overwhelmed when they first hit your table: salty soy-braised beef, tangy pickled radishes, sticky candied lotus roots, sweet braised black soybeans, crunchy sautéed bean sprouts, spicy dried anchovies, crispy pan-fried tofu, chewy marinated bracken fiddleheads—just to name a few.
These little plates represent the unique way Koreans eat. For me, they are what make a Korean meal such a convivial, satisfying, and memorable experience.
History of Banchan
Geographically, Korea is situated geographically between China and Japan. When it comes to eating customs, we take the middle ground, too.
In China, food is served family-style on large plates for everyone to share, with long chopsticks to reach. In Japan, individual bento box-style eating is the norm, with each person enjoying his or her own set meal of a main entree flanked with rice and small side dishes. Japanese chopsticks are, therefore, the shortest.
The Korean table is a combination of the two: a large main dish accompanied by a colorful array of little side dishes to share, with medium-length chopsticks to match.
We can trace the roots of banchan to the Buddhist monks of the Goryeo dynasty (918–1392), who spread vegetarianism around the peninsula. As meat was forbidden, they incorporated a wide variety of vegetables into their diets, harvesting many different kinds of herbs, roots, leaves, mushrooms, and seaweeds, and finding myriad ways to prepare them.
Many of these fragrant ingredients were primarily used in oriental medicine, but when seasoned and cooked, they became glorious, nourishing dishes to eat. Food and medicine were seen as one, and everyday meals were thought to be able to prevent and cure ailments.
This deep belief in food as medicine set the foundation for the Korean diet and its emphasis on harmony and balance. Based on ancient medicine and philosophy, foods were categorized as either “yin” or “yang” in nature, and linked to the Five Phases—fire (red), earth (yellow), wood (blue/green), water (black), and metal (white)—and the health of specific corresponding organs. The Korean table is meant to balance all of these elements through a variety of ingredients, textures, flavors, aromas, and colors. In any one dish, ingredients and flavors are layered, working together.
This balancing act explains why many Korean dishes are wrapped in leaves or thin pancakes to eat. It also explains the use of such a variety of cooking techniques, from pickling and fermenting to steaming, sautéing, and frying—all simultaneously on display in a spread of banchan.
The idea of banchan is thought to have evolved further during the Joseon period (1392—1897), when Korea was divided into eight provinces. The executive governing body, the Six Ministries, had to cultivate and regularly present food from each of the regions to the king. A diverse array of small dishes would be displayed on the royal table, showcasing Korea’s breadth of agricultural achievements and prosperity.
Nowadays, elaborate meals will often include dozens of different kinds of banchan—preferably an odd number, for good luck—so that every inch of the table, edge to edge, is laden with small plates. The more banchan, the grander the meal, and the more generous your host.
A Colorful Array
Korea harvests from the mountains, valleys, sea, and fields, and numerous delectable banchan are made from the resulting bounty of crops. What you are served greatly depends on seasonality and regionality.
Usually, you’ll be graced with at least three different types of kimchi, fermented vegetables that offer your palate refreshing bites of tanginess.
Namul, stir-fried and marinated vegetables, present various unusual roots, leaves, sprouts, legumes, and seaweeds, often seasoned delicately with garlic, sesame, soy sauce, and ginger.
Jeon, small pan-fried delicacies, include crispy, savory pancakes and lightly battered meat and veggies.
Jorim, meat or vegetables braised in seasoned broths, offer up salty, flavorsome bites.
You’ll also typically be served a bubbling pot of steamed souffle egg, gyeranjjim.
My personal favorite banchan, though, is a bit of an outlier: the ubiquitous potato salad with apples, a truly addictive mix of creamy potato goodness studded with surprising bits of sweet and crunchy apple. Every restaurant has its own version, but the apples are the key unique ingredient.
All of these little dishes graciously surround a shared main course, such as Korean barbecued meats. While you are eating, you can sample various different kinds of banchan, making your meal exciting, well balanced, and thus healthier. You can never just eat meat at a Korean meal.
It is this way of eating that makes the traditional Korean table, hansik, so extraordinary and different from any other cuisine in the world. The best part is always on the side!
How to Make Your Own Banchan at Home
For a table for two at home, I usually serve five kinds of banchan. I always pay attention to the color of the ingredients and will pick an assortment based on their hues and the season.
It does take a bit of time to prepare, but it is well worth the effort. I tend to make large batches of banchan to snack on all week, or incorporate into other dishes, such as bibimbap.
I love to make sigeumchi namul, seasoned spinach, using mature spinach with hearty leaves and purple-pinkish stems. You can use the same seasonings from my recipe and substitute any seasonal greens. For spring, try spicy watercress or tender pea shoots.
Seasoned soybean sprouts also add wonderful texture and color to the table, with their crunchy yellow heads and nutty flavor, especially when enhanced with a kiss of roasted sesame oil. Both of these are very easy to prepare and are definite crowd-pleasers—full of flavor, but also light and healthy.
A silky egg custard, gyeranjjim, will win attention, too. I usually steam my custards, but my mom cooks hers directly on the stovetop, then serves it still bubbling. Either way, it’s incredibly comforting to eat.
Tiny crispy, honey-glazed anchovies, myulchi bokkeum, bring a bite of welcome sweetness to the table, and soy-braised beef, jangjorim, is a lip-smackingly savory nibble.
In addition to these five fabulous dishes, I’ll offer two different varieties of seasonal kimchi. Right now, I’m serving radish with wild garlic. When summer hits, I’ll make a refreshing, non-spicy white kimchi.
There are so many banchan options to choose from. Small portions of a larger dish that may be normally served on its own, such as pajeon, a savory green onion pancake, can also be considered banchan. You can even make up your own—so experiment!
Judy Joo is a chef, restaurateur, author, and TV personality. Her newest book is “Judy Joo’s Korean Soul Food.”