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Korean Panchan: 101 little reasons to love Korean food

Panchan are side dishes in Korea

I first fell in love with Korean food in New York City.

I was in a restaurant in Korea Town with a girlfriend and before our meal could even arrive, the waiter brought out a handful of side dishes.

What was this generosity? New York is hardly the kind of place to find it…

My friend explained to me that they it was common to Korean culture, that a meal came with side dishes (or 반찬 banchan) and they were free.

Wait. Rewind.

Why do Koreans have so many side dishes?

The idea of banchan dates back to times of Korean royal court cuisine, where a meal was said to be twelve dishes and accompanied with rice and soup.

Today, banchan can consist of anywhere from two to twelve dishes; although cheaper restaurants serve less.  The photo above shows 15 banchan dishes and that was a special place that my yogi friend, Megan, took me to when I recently visited her in Daegu.

My first meal in a Korean restaurant in New York’s Korea Town. Our meal came with 11 side dishes.

Do I get all the banchan to myself?

Depends on if your party is one person or many.

If you’re one, then hog-and-heffer… Yes!

Korea however, being a community-oriented society, favors the whole vs. the individua. Panchan is actually meant to be “shared” with all the people in your party.

Even the bowl of soup?

Yes, even the bowl of soup. So it might be startling and off-putting at first, when see spoons gun one small bowl. Just remember, it’s part of the culture. If you’re wigged out by it, then just avoid the soup.

On a happy note that amazes most westerners,.. the banchan is refillable if you want more.

I seriously don’t know how Korean restaurants make money…

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What kinds of banchan are there?

There are many kinds of banchan and the list often feels like an endless variety of namul (vegetable), kimchi, tofu, fish/anchovies, odeng (aka fishcake), jun (aka pancake), etc… all flavored with different ingredients. Here’s a list of Koreafornian‘s top 10 favorites.  Often, in each meal, there’s been a few I haven’t tried.

Some dishes are seasonal and like Korean meals, these side dishes aren’t overly greasy or oily.

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Are Korean side dishes safe for vegetarians?

Yes and no. Just because they’re vegetables doesn’t automatically make them vegetarian.

Occasionally, there’s fish sauce or oyster sauce in the flavorings of foods such as kimchi.  Tofu might be okay, but sometimes, it can come with dried seafood lavor that you can scrape off. The vegetable namuls might be safer as much of their flavoring seems to come from vinegar or sesame oil. But I can’t be sure.

Having a veggie diet, my favorites are the namuls (vegetables), kimchi kongnamul (bean sprouts) and spinach namul, but I do allow myself seafood, so kimchi is definitely part of my palate and there’s usually an interesting kimchi variety out there.

At the Loving Hut (a vegetarian restaurant) , a simple order of tofu stew still comes with banchan– 3 dishes with a bowl of rice

Korean families serve banchan with their meals too

If you think banchan is served only in restaurants, you’ll be surprised to know that they’re traditional settings in Korean households too.  Korean wives serve banchan with every meal and as you can imagine, it’s a lot of work. Thus, most modern housewives buy pre-prepared banchan from markets and stores.

The following photo is of a Bibimbap buffet, in which the banchan is smartly used to mixed in with the bibimbap.

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 What do you think about Korean side dishes? Ever had a similar experience with another culture?

4 Comments

  1. Nancie M says:

    Love banchan. I’ve been here for 12 years, and banchan is not as good as it used to be (or should I say that as prices rise the banchan suffers?) , but it’s still good 🙂

  2. Jemma says:

    Korean food always seems mouthwatering though I haven’t tried eating one yet. This post just made me crave for Korean food and I’m glad that there are lots of Korean restaurants here in the Philippines. I might give it a try this lunch today. 🙂

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