Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Bites and nibbles

One of the nicest things about Korean cuisine is the array of banchan, or little dishes of goodies, that are served with the main entrée.

At restaurants, these come free with the meal, and are the chef's choice - they may vary from day to day. I've never been able to determine whether the banchan selection is based on your chosen meal, or whether it's whatever the kitchen happens to have that day.

Banchan are perfect for eating with rice, but they can be eaten by themselves, too. It's not rude to tuck right in while you're waiting for the main course. At the table, the little dishes are to be shared, and most people eat communally, directly from the little plates.

Napa cabbage Kimchi
There are six types of banchan, distinguished by their preparation method. The first is Kimchi - vegetables pickled with salt, sugar, hot red pepper, and garlic. Though cabbage is the most familiar kimchi, radishes, cucumbers, and other vegetables can be kimchi, too. Some kimchi are blindingly hot with chile while others are sweet or tangy.

Namul are vegetables that are lightly cooked, either sauteed or blanched, and seasoned. Sometimes they are very simple, like spinach or broccoli. Some Korean vegetables sound exotic to Western ears, like fern sprouts, asters, amaranth or bellflower stems. Namul also include eggplant and bean sprouts.

This array includes raw carrot sticks, garlic clovers, seasoned salt. The dish at center is, I think, chicken gizzard
Jorim refers to food that has been slow-simmered or braised, usually with soy or gochujang. They can include braised fish like mackerel in a chili sauce, beef or pork stews. They can also be vegetables simmered down in a sauce reduced to a glaze.

Soy-braised lotus root, sold in the supermarket
Bokkeum are fried dishes, stir fried or flash fried. Vegetables are common, but also dried shredded squid or dried anchovies can be fried with spices, meats or seafood are also prepared.  Tofu or fishcakes can be battered and fried, too.

Jeon are pan-fried items, often pancakes stuffed with vegetables or seafood.
Steamed egg
 Jjim are steamed dishes. One common jjim banchan is a little crock of steamed egg.

Acorn jelly
Those are the basic types, but there are others that don't necessarily fit any type. Above is dotorimuk, or jelly made from the starch of acorns. Its wiggly blandness is doused with soy, garlic and chile.  Japchae are clear sweet potato noodles stir-fried with vegetables. Some places also serve a rather peculiar potato salad, mayonnaise-y, with raisins or other sweet fruit like chopped apples.
Tiny crabs in spicy sauce
At Korean supermarkets, trays of banchan are there for shoppers to choose and pack for home, like a salad or appetizer bar. It's great to be able to try something new. What about wee crabs or steamed, spicy cockles? Or soy-glazed peanuts?

Steamed squash with nuts and syrup
The banchan tradition dates back as early as the first millennium, and became quite important in the medieval Korean Royal Court, when it was cool to serve dozens of tiny dishes at ceremonial meals. Today, American-influenced bar food like cheese corn expand the traditional menu. But anyway you serve them, banchan are all about abundance and sharing, and that's a tradition that will never go out of style.


David Duff said...

I'm going back to bed, I don't feel very well . . .

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

The banchan are such a fun element of Korean cuisine. I have to confess, though, that I can't resist calling them "Scooby Snacks".