The Korean ‘mezze’, or the ‘thali’ from the peninsula. Banchan is simply the term that is used to refer to ’smorgasbord’ of small side dishes served as an accompaniment to the traditional Korean meal.
Korean dining etiquette is deeply rooted in themes of familial love, sharing and respect. The banchan exemplifies the tradition that ‘shares from the same plate’ or so to speak. However, almost contrarily banchan is used as a symbol of opulence and finesse when served on the tables of the Joseon court. The banchan served in this instance features large spreads, meaningful presentation and elegant bronze-ware. But regardless of the context, the banchan always contrasts and buttresses the main course.
Historical evidence tells us that the parts of the banchan are entirely determined by the season and availability of produce. The seasonal and geographic limitations of the peninsula along with the Buddhist ban on meat (during the Goryeo period) is what led to the popularity of various fermented food and local produce; much of which immediately translated into the establishment of banchan into the Korean diet.
The core feature of every set of side dishes is the ubiquitous kimchi. A meal would be incomplete without the kimchi’s tangy, funky taste that is characteristic of Korean cuisine. Another component is known as numul muchim, which features subtlety seasoned root vegetables and sprouts. Namul munchin provides the much needed balance to offset the spice from the kimchi and the main dish. The final basic component is jorim, which are vegetables, meats and fish that are braised and reduced in simmered broths. These dishes deliver a depth of flavour due to their long cooking times. In addition to the aforementioned components, other dishes may embellish the banchan. The savoury umami from seaweed lather, mushrooms and seasonal veggies are picked and cooked so they go hand-in-hand with the main dish.
The universality of side dishes in meals around the world means that banchan by no way unique to the peninsula, but its history, flavour profiles, seasonality and most importantly the role it plays in the meal is what makes it uniquely Korean. Banchan is almost always subservient to the main meal but it is by no means devoid of elegance.
Written by Elston D’Souza