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.
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.
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.