A spread worthy of royalty – The Denver Post

By Eric Kim, The New York Times

In Min Jin Lee’s 2017 novel “Pachinko,” a restaurant owner approaches the protagonist, Sunja, after hearing of her famous kimchi. Sunja’s reputation preceding her, the owner hires her on the spot to supply his restaurant’s banchan — the small side dishes that often accompany a Korean meal.

“Any fool can make a marinade and grill meat,” he tells her, “but the customer needs a fine array of banchan to make him feel like he’s dining like a king, wouldn’t you say?”

Banchan are one of the great joys of Korean cuisine, complementing the entree, such as a grilled meat or a bubbling stew, but treasured in their own right. Many people like to eat them as appetizers, though they’re meant to go alongside the rest of the meal. Most restaurants serve them on the house, as a gesture of hospitality.

During the Joseon dynasty in Korea, which lasted from 1392 to 1910, the court served multiple daily meals to the king, including a royal table (called surasang) that consisted of 12 banchan — plus rice, soup and other dishes.

Some restaurants today come close to this regality, even making banchan the focus of the meal. The Odae Mountain restaurant, in the Gangwon province of South Korea, serves nearly 20 different banchan as a set menu, highlighting the various vegetables, herbs and edible grasses of the region. In New York, at Atoboy, chef Junghyun Park offers a prodigious selection of shareable small plates.

Similarly, at home, you can make banchan the star of your own meal. And the best part is this: You don’t need a bounty for your spread to feel like the stuff of royalty.

The key is in planning ahead. Banchan-style home cooking is cumulative, which is to say, you might make one or two dishes at a time and keep leftovers in the fridge. The point is that you’re amassing a store of banchan so that, come dinnertime, all that’s left to do is steam the rice and take out your stash.

Some banchan can be eaten as soon as you make them. But others are meant to be eaten later, stemming from historic methods of preservation. On the Korean Peninsula, food often had to be preserved, especially with salt, to last through the long, grueling winters. That’s why fermentation is central to many banchan, like kimchi, pickles and jeotgal, or salted seafood.

Ultimately, banchan is a big word with multiple categories. Much of it is inherently vegetable-forward, a lasting result of Korea’s Buddhist and agricultural history. Many namul, or seasoned vegetable, preparations require just a quick steam or boil before tossing in sesame oil, garlic and salt. Spinach, soybean sprouts and bracken fiddleheads (called gosari in Korean) are among the most common namul banchan, though any farmers market produce would sing under this gentle treatment.