What’s in those little bowls, anyway?In a city flooded with stylish restaurants, many Koreans still dream of a humble meal on a hot ondol floor, eating a steamy bowl of rice with a few flavorful side dishes.
To many Koreans the word banchan, or side dishes, has a nostalgic association with the days when a few good kimchis and steamed rice were pretty much all that was on the dinner table. Seafood was scarce, and meat was a privilege of the wealthy. So many Koreans took advantage of fermentation, using lots of salt, as a way of keeping the food from going bad.
But times have changed. Amid a growing number of medical reports urging people to use less spice, and claims that Koreans take too much sodium, leading to stomach cancer and high blood pressure, eating salty, old-style banchan has become a sign of unhealthy eating habits.
Items that require a lot of preparation time ― such as spicy flatfish fermented in garlic and ginger, which can take as long as six months to a year before it’s ready to eat ― are still popular in local delis. But most Koreans nowadays don’t eat as many banchan as they used to. A typical meal in a Korean home might include three or four of these side dishes with steamed rice and soup, and maybe grilled fish or barbecued meat for supper.
JoongAng Daily staffers recently discovered a small, country-style deli called “Sigol Banchan” in a traditional market near Hyoja-dong. It’s run by a woman who claims she was once a chef for the Rev. Moon Sun-myung. For a wide array of banchan, this place is hard to beat. Here’s some of what they serve up ― 24 different kinds of well-prepared banchan. Next time you wonder just what’s in that little dish on your table next to the rice, maybe it’ll be one of these.
1. Dongchimi (pickled radish)
Dongchimi is a type of liquid kimchi with a cold stock and pickled radish. It’s more popular during the summer, when Koreans typically eat it with rice cakes or roasted sweet potatoes.
Dongchimi also makes an excellent stock for noodle soup. Aside from the radish, ingredients like young scallions, fermented chilis and pears are added for a rich stock.
2. Baechu kimchi (pickled cabbage)
What more can be said about this potent plant that Koreans salivate over? Kimchi is a vegetable fermented at a mild temperature with seasonings like chili powder, garlic, ginger, green onion, radish, salted anchovies ― thousands of possible spices, depending on the region.
There are more than 300 types of kimchi, and it is the most important component of a Korean meal. Once the cabbages are stuffed with seasoning, they are stored in traditional earthenware for several months to a year. Nowadays, most Koreans own kimchi refrigerators or sealed containers that keep it at the right temperature to ripen in just a few weeks.
3. Pajoeli (pickled green onions)
Pajeoli is a shredded green onion pickled in chili sauce. Traditionally, green onions pair nicely with meat, so the dish is served in most barbecue restaurants. The taste is rather strong with a slightly bitter aftertaste, which is why it makes such a great balance with red meat.
4. Baek kimchi (white kimchi)
Baek kimchi literally means white kimchi. It is a pickled Chinese cabbage filled with condiments that go into regular kimchi but without chili powder. The stock is served cold with slices of red pepper and pinenuts.
5. Gochu jangachi (pickled peppers)
This dish falls into the larger category of jangachi, or vegetables pickled in soy sauce or soybeans. There are over 200 types of jangachi in Korean food, and it is one of the most popular banchan next to kimchi.
Recipes, and the varieties of pickled vegetables, differ depending on the region. Garlic, cucumber and Japanese plums are some of the conventional ones. In the southern region, pickles are made from persimmons, apricot and even Korean melons. This particular jangachi uses green peppers seasoned in chili paste, but the flavor is more of chili than green pepper.
6. Mu malaengi (dried slices of radish)
Mu malaengi is one of Koreans’ favorite winter delicacies from decades past. These thin slices of sun-dried radish are prepared around August or September, when Chinese radish is picked. Once dried, the slices are rinsed in cold water and seasoned with chili paste, sugar, garlic and sesame oil. Some restaurants save the leftover radish from kimchi t make this.
7. Myeongran jeot (Pollack caviar)
Finally we arrive at the category of jeotgal (usually abbreviated as “jeot”), banchan at its most sophisticated. Jeotgal is seafood that has been fermented for years with a great deal of sea salt. Typically it’s made from squid, shrimp, anchovies, oysters or clams. Often it’s used in a mixture for kimchi or stews, but other types, like this one, are eaten as a side dish with rice.
Mind you, the smell of some of these might alarm you at first. Jeotgal is similar to cheese in that it’s not the most fragrant of foods, but it may have the richest flavor of any Korean dish you’ve ever tasted. Pollack caviar is best enjoyed with a few drops of sesame oil.
8. Gajaemi sikhae (salted flatfish)
A favorite in Hamgyeong province, this dish, despite the word sikhae, a name for a kind of sweet punch, is not in fact a sweet punch. In fact, the origin of its name is uncertain, except that gajaemi sikhae uses similar extracts from rice wines as part of the mixture. Sweet rice is added to the fermented flatfish.
9. Gul jeot (seasoned oysters)
Gul jeot originated out of seaside districts for purposes of preservation. Oysters go bad within a day or two at room temperature. In fact, gul jeot starts to foam and exude a sour taste by the second day. Once the fermentation process is finished, oysters are mixed with garlic and green onions.
10. Yeongeun jorim (seasoned lotus root)
One of the popular root dishes in Korean food after deodeok, an earthy-tasting white root, is yeongeun, a lotus root boiled down in a thick, starchy syrup and soy sauce. It offers a strong, austere taste with crunchy textures.
Yeongeun is a common side dish at home, largely because its recipe is less complicated than deodeok, which is often grilled.
11. Maneul jangachi (pickled garlic)
Pickled garlic is another popular type of jangachi. Normally, whole garlic cloves are marinated in soy sauce and vinegar for weeks or months; sometimes the cloves are peeled before they are served. The soy sauce stock is very flavorful. Many Koreans save manuel jangachi in a separate bottle to mix with rice and fried eggs when there is nothing in the fridge.
12. Jangjorim (marinated beef)
Jangjorim is a beef brisket marinated and pickled in sweet soy sauce and ginger. It’s one of the side dishes Korean mothers commonly pack for their children’s lunch along with kimchi and dried seaweed. Quail eggs and vegetables, such as carrots, are broiled with the meat.
13. Gaejang (seasoned crabs)
Gaejang is often called a “rice stealer” by Koreans, because it allows you to finish a couple of bowls of rice without extra side dishes. Typically, raw blue crabs are fermented over a period of three or four months on a bed of soy sauce or chili paste with large chunks of ginger.
Gaejang can be challenging for people who are not used to the taste, but it can become an addiction. There are franchises and home shopping channels nowadays specializing in gaejang.
14. Maechurial jorim (marinated quail eggs)
This dish is similar to jangjorim, except that it uses quail eggs as a substitute for beef or pork.
15. Kong jaban (seasoned black beans)
This is just a humble working-class dish that’s eaten at home with sesame seeds on top. The beans are boiled down with soy sauce and syrup until the sauce thickens. Since the preparation is time-consuming ― involving a close watch over the stove for a few hours to make sure the beans and syrup don’t stick together ― kong jaban is often bought in delis rather than cooked at home.
16. Ojingoe chaemuchim (dried squid)
Koreans have been steadfast lovers of squid for centuries. They panfry them in spicy sauce, stuff them with clear noodles and vegetables to grill them with a chili sauce and eat them raw. Another common alternative is to dry them, slice them into thin pieces and mix them in soy sauce and syrup.
17. Myeolchi bokkeum (pan-fried anchovies)
Dried anchovies are typically used to make a fish stock for a soup or stew. They are also eaten as-is for a light appetizer, or as a pan-fried side dish. The taste of the anchovies varies depending on the size of the fish, but normally the smaller anchovies are ideal for a pan-fry.
18. Gobu (burdock root)
The preparation of gobu is pretty much the same as for lotus root. The only difference between the two is in texture; in contrast to lotus root’s crunchiness, gobu tends to be a bit tough and chewy. Seasoned gobu is also used as stuffing for gimbap (rice rolls wrapped in seaweed).
19. Ddangkong jorim (seasoned peanuts)
This is prepared in a manner very similar to that of kong jaban. Like most nut dishes in Korea, it’s eaten as delicacy on certain times of the year, such as Chuseok, the Korean Thanksgiving. But they are not widely used in homemade side dishes like radish, for example. Ddangkong jorim is served in many Chinese restaurants these days.
20. Gaetnip (seasoned sesame leaf)
Sesame leaves may be one of Koreans’ favorite vegetables, next to romaine lettuce and cabbage. They are wrapped around pieces of grilled meat in Korean barbecue, along with a dab of soybean paste and raw garlic. As a side dish, seasoned gaetnip (mixed with garlic, soy sauce and chili powder) is used to wrap rice.
21. Doraji namul (cooked roots of balloon flowers)
This shredded root is one of the five mountain vegetables used in bibimbap. Doraji is the root of a balloon flower. The flower itself is not edible; the texture of the root is chewy, but soft compared to other kinds of white roots, like ginseng or deodeok.
22. Gosari namul (steamed bracken)
If you ever saw a group of Koreans picking weeds alongside an American highway, chances are they were after this bracken. In the West, this particular plant is considered a weed, but Gosari is another of the five mountain vegetables that are put into bibimbap.
The demand for gosari, however, seems to be on the decline since a medical report claimed that the plant can have a negative effect on male sex drive. If you are not bothered by this possibility, these dried ferns taste great, especially when mixed with a large dose of sesame oil.
23. Sigeumchi namul (spinach)
Spinach is one of the most common cafeteria foods due to its nutritional value, and it is used as an important ingredient in various Korean soups, kimchis, salads and stir-fries. In salad it’s mixed with crushed sesame seeds, garlic and sesame oil.
24. Parae (seasoned laver)
Parae is one of the three common seaweed dishes in Korean food, aside from miyeok and gim. It’s different from the other two in that it is almost always eaten wet. It’s most often eaten in a salad with slices of radish, onion and imitation crab with vinegar.
by Park Soo-mee