Korean Panchan: 101 little reasons to love Korean side dishes

Last Updated on June 20, 2021 by Christine Kaaloa

231145 10100430035412498 492289836 n
Panchan : Korean side dishes

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 Korean side dishes. What was this generosity?

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

SAM 1410
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 Korean panchan to myself?

Depends on if your party is one person or many. In Korea, 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. The panchan is refillable if you want more.

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

What kinds of Korean side dishes 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.


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.

SAM 2441
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 panchan 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.

IMG 7837
The following photo is of a Bibimbap buffet, in which the banchan is smartly used to mixed in with the bibimbap.


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

   My Travel Survival Cheat Sheet


download checklist 25 travel tips for solo travelers

Download my 25 Solo Travel Mistakes to AVOID Checklist

And Get my Travel Survival Blog Updates

Related Posts

* Korea tips & stays, Crazy Korea, Food Guides, Vegetarian Life