Beautiful Bountiful Banchan: All About Korean Side Dishes

At any Korean restaurant or any Korean home dining experience, more often than not, the table will be dotted with lots of lovely little blots of color; countless sides of small dishes to populate a delicious smelling table setting. These small dishes, called 반찬 “ban-chan,” are a staple of an excellent Korean meal and a deliciously fun dining experience.

Banchan are a variety of separately prepared, usually cold side dishes that are served in small quantities. They are replenished frequently as they run out during the meal, which, if the food is good, you can expect to happen quite often. Calling over a waiter for another dish of gyeran jorim or being told by my mother to get up and grab some more kimchi for the table is as Korean of an experience as it comes. Just as well, because constant movement and connection is characteristic of a good meal.

Banchan is set at the center of the table to be shared and is usually brought out before the main course to serve as a pseudo-appetizer of sorts. There’s nothing like an exciting exploration of all the different dishes to get the appetite literally and figuratively hungry for more. Most Korean cuisine is meant to be shared, with main dishes set out in the center of the table and people having individual bowls and plates to grab from the mains and banchan whenever they like.

Admittedly, it is a tad informal by Western standards – my first dinner at a non-Korean friend’s house was a very odd and slightly uncomfortable experience. The etiquette felt stilted. Not being able to grab what I wanted right off the dish felt somewhat cold and impersonal compared to the meals I’d had at home. But just like banchan itself, Korean cuisine is built on the principle that good food is meant to be shared and new experiences are to be embraced and cherished.

The Origins of 반찬

The dining tradition of banchan was born of – as so many other great food traditions are – a combination of historical necessity and hungry ingenuity. Banchan is thought to be a relic of Buddhist influences on Korea, specifically sometime between A.D. 300 and A.D. 400. During this period, the monarchy banned meat-containing dishes, so the royal court kitchen and the people began to develop primarily vegetable-based dishes to be eaten and enjoyed. Many of these dishes would eventually become the banchan that are still eaten and enjoyed today.

Even after the ban was lifted, the majority of Korean banchan remained vegetarian or vegan. Beyond the dietary restrictions of Buddhist ideologies, the principles of sharing meals openly and equally also carried over into the design and spirit of banchan. Sharing meals, eating collectively, and enjoying the people and the food is as ingrained in Korean culture as it is the food.

A saying I often heard in the kitchen was: “밥상에서 정난다.” Loosely translated, it means “at the dinner table there is happiness/good fortune.” If good food and good company can genuinely bring you joy, banchan is a tasty shareable path to enlightenment.

Different Kinds of 반찬

Although there is an enormous selection of banchan, each with their own tastes and presentation, they can be subdivided into classifications and preparation styles to be more easily digested  (though it is worth noting that there are more than a few cases where these classifications and preparations overlap).

김치 “Kimchi”

The most immediately recognizable is, of course, kimchi. Although people normally associate only the cabbage variety of kimchi with kimchi, there are many different kinds. At its core, this flavorful icon of a dish is just any kind of fermented vegetable that is usually seasoned primarily with salt and chili peppers.

Of the tons and tons of different kinds of kimchi, a restaurant will probably be serving at least two or three different types as banchan. On top of this, every family seems to have their own super-secret personal recipe, some with ginger, some without onions, but all with sealed lips and watering mouths. I’m still not entirely sure what my grandma uses in hers to make it so amazing.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by 주안상 (@juansang_0701)

나물 Namul

Namul is another vast category of banchan that you can expect to see a lot of on Korean tables. It generally refers to steamed, marinated, dried, boiled, or stir-fried (or some combination of these methods) vegetables both served as banchan and used in other dishes.

Many consider namul banchan to be particularly healthy, and the wide variety means there’s always something for everyone. Unfortunately, these fad-diet-worthy dishes are not a favorite among children; as my dad used to say whenever I left some namul on the plate, “맛이 모르네” it takes a more sophisticated palate to appreciate them.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by sam_i cook🔪 (@_____ssammy_____)

볶음 Bokkeum

The word bokkeum is a noun coming from the word bokkda, which means “to fry”; these banchan are usually favorites on the table and tend to need replenishing quickly and often. They can be served dry, which means there is no sauce or sauce on the side, or wet, which means it is served with sauce already on it. Sometimes there are multiple options for sauces, so be sure to always ask for more.

Bokkeum banchan is usually a little reminiscent of the main dishes you may be seeing but with more variety, higher demand, and less supply, so be careful who you decide to sit next to and be mindful of how quickly they are with a pair of chopsticks.

조림 Jorim

Jorim is another noun derived from a verb in Korean meaning “to boil down” or “to simmer.”  Jorim dishes are made by boiling ingredients in a seasoned broth until the liquid is absorbed and reduced, locking in the sauce and juices and creating incredibly dense flavors. As these dishes tend to be the most time and effort-consuming to make, they are not as plentiful as, say, the namul and kimchi banchan.

Jorim is another kind of banchan that is prone to disappearing quickly and thus will require some carefully strategic seating placement to maximize your enjoyment.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by @thejstable

찜 Jjim

Jjim refers specifically to steamed or boiled dishes, usually served as a soup or in some sort of broth. Very often, these dishes will feature seafood or some kind of meat. Because jjim often has lots of different ingredients that tend to meld together in the broth, it may not be obvious, so those with dietary restrictions beware.

It is not uncommon for 계란찜 “gyeran-jjim,” which is a popular and delicious fluffy steamed egg dish best served scalding hot, to be served complimentary in some Korean Barbeque places. And if not complimentary, it is always welcome and recommended to complete an authentic K-BBQ experience.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Eun Sook Pi (@silverspooncooking)

전 Jeon

Jeon is a fried pancake or fritter that incorporates various vegetables and sometimes includes meat or seafood fried right into the batter. Jeon will typically come out in tiny slices and may be served with a dipping sauce.

This one is always a favorite among younger children and the young at heart, as the delectable fried flavors of Jeon are simple yet incredibly tasty. A particular favorite for those in love with both form and function is the dessert jeon made with honey, and edible flower petals called 화전, which are almost as beautiful as they are delicious.

Try banchan for yourself!

Now, armed with the knowledge to classify any banchan set before you, it’s time to gather some friends and family, find a Korean restaurant that looks enticing, take advantage of insider knowledge, and vie for the seat with the best access to the banchan at the table.

Go enjoy the cuisine and culture of banchan.

Go find happiness at that dinner table.