Every dinner at any restaurant always starts with the same excruciating ritual. Flipping through the menu, trying to decide what to eat. You're constantly balancing what you can afford with what you want. If you love food like I do, this can be a very long and hungry process. After you finally decide on what to eat, you have to start the long wait for your appetizers or food to come out of the kitchen. NOT THE CASE at a Korean restaurant though. A very short time after you order, a waiter will come by your table with a tray full of small dishes full of food. Just as you're wishing all that food was yours, they start placing it down on your table.
That's the Banchan. It's not really an appetizer, but it definitely works as one. They're more like small communal side dishes for the entire table that can be shared and eaten throughout the entire meal. For the hungry eater though, its a great start to a great meal. Alot of these dishes consists of pickled and fermented vegetables, with an absolute Korean necessity always included. I'm going to highlight a few specific ones.
Kimchi. What most people think of when they think of Korean cuisine. It's basically a spicy fermented cabbage. It's salty, spicy, and gives a bit of a bite. It's really great when eaten with rice, or even by itself. It's a very regularly eaten staple side dish for Korean meals, whether eaten by itself, or used in other dishes. It's also boasts health benefits too!
Oi Kimchi. It's basically the same as regular kimchi, except instead of using napa cabbage, cucumbers are fermented using the exact same seasonings and chilis. It's nice and refreshing, crisp, and works just as wonderfully as kimchi. Not as strong as regular kimchi, this might go easier on the palette of someone trying Korean cuisine for the first time.
Kongnamul. Cooked and chilled bean sprouts in sesame oil. Once again delightful, very light. It doesn't have any significant tastes that overpower the palette. It simply has a very light and airy taste and texture, with the bean sprouts' taste staying very intact while being subtly complemented by the sesame oil. This particular restaurant added the hot chili seasoning to it. Not too bad.
Steamed Egg. I unfortunately don't know the name to this great dish. I love eggs and this couldn't be better. It's a steamed egg, seasoned with soy sauce, sometimes with pieces of seafood cooked right into it. It's got a very light texture, but at the same time is very firm. And best of all it's eggs! I haven't met one person who doesn't love this dish, except one person, but that's only because he's deathly afraid of eggs.
Korean styled potato salad. I definitely don't know the name of this dish in korean, but it's definitely not mom's potato salad. It's even better! It's potato salad, with various vegetables, and a thick dressing that gives it a very sweet taste. This particular one was accented with raisins, giving it an even sweeter punch. It's hard not to have your eyes widen and smile after taking a bite of this. Sometimes a sweet potato variety is used instead of just regular potatoes.
So instead of bread, you get this giant array of side dishes to be eaten throughout your meal, given to you as soon as you're done ordering. Sounds better than bread to me! You'll usually get 8+ different banchan dishes at any restaurant, giving you a small taste of everything to get you started. I'd take that over bread and butter any day. People don't realize this, but you can always ask for more, and most restaurants are more than willing to oblige. Best of all, it feels like you ordered an appetizer sampler, but its not. It's absolutely FREE with the meal!
Besides these dishes, there are dozens more different banchan dishes. Many of them will consisted of kimchi'd vegetables, seasoned or marinated vegetables, tofus, japchae(clear yam noodles), different meats, and seafoods. Every restaurant will dole out different ones, changing it up every day. To be honest, the banchan is my favorite part of the meal. It's definitely worth the trek into a Korean restaurant.
Next we'll demystify a dish that many people don't know about and don't know how to order.
UP NEXT : Soon Doo Bu