Bountiful Banchan:  Korean Food

Looking past the rice bowl and chopsticks one can see a cuisine that is uniquely Korean.

Banchan, is the term referring collectively to the multitude of Korean side dishes served in small portions, and replenished as needed. Usually, the more formal the meal, the more banchan there will be. Possibly 101 individual dishes have graced our table these last 4 weeks. (I dare you to count all the little dishes in the following photos!)

These side dishes are prepared and refrigerated so they can be pulled out for a meal; they are served cold – just add fresh rice!

Our friend Eun Jeong prepared this delicious pork dinner and my favorite Korean noodle dish as well as the many side dishes.

Korean food is served in communal dishes, except for individual bowls of rice and soup.

Korean dishes can be categorized by the main staples, subsidiary dishes and desserts. The main dishes are made from grains –  either rice, noodles or porridge – vegetables, and meat.

Rice in various entrees: soup, stew, fried, or mixed with vegetables. 

During one of our first attempts to order (without an English menu or any English speaker) and quickly getting frustrated, a kind patron used his smart phone to show us the translation of the first item on the wall menu: broth with varied components. Awesome! How helpful was that? I still didn’t know what it was, but quickly ordered it nonetheless and was delivered the soup in the upper left photo. We learned to looked at what other diners were eating, ask the waitress to point it out on the wall menu and take a photo of it so we could order it next time.

The names are difficult (we often had no idea what we were eating) and the spellings can be numerous, so for this Amateur Guide to Korean Cuisine I will stick to the most basic of English translations.

We called this dish paella which the waiter cooked in front of us stirfrying the meat and vegetables first (upper photos) and adding cooked rice and mozzarella cheese (lower left.) It was a favorite – so delicious! Lower right: a savory seafood pancake dish.

Korean cuisine uses a variety of uncooked, cooked and pickled vegetables including napa cabbage, sprouts, mung beans, carrots, mushrooms, cucumbers, radishes, zucchinis, chili peppers, spring onion and scallions, potatoes, sweet potatoes, spinach, seaweed and wild greens.

Commonly used condiments include sesame oil, fermented bean paste, soy sauce, red pepper flakes, salt, garlic, and ginger.

Mandu – or dumplings are a favorite and can be fried, steamed or in soups.

A large variety of noodles are common in the Korean diet. Wheat noodles did not become common until after 1945. 

A variety of noodle dishes including steamed dumplings. Japanese influence is seen in the seaweed-rice roll (Gimbap) and Ramen noodles (photo, lower left)

Beef, pork, chicken, duck, fish and shellfish as well as tofu are used in Korean dishes and are grilled, boiled, stir-fried, roasted or served raw in some instances with seafood and shellfish.

Upper left: spicy octopus; upper right: pork cutlet in panko crust, lower: the Korean specialty Bulgogi, beef in a sweet sauce.

Korean Barbecue is an internationally well-known specialty. It is the unique method of roasting meat on gas or charcoal grills that are built into the diner’s table. 

During the Japanese occupation and then through the Korean conflict there were food shortages. Our hosts told us that it was during this time period that eating from communal dishes became the custom. With prosperity, the per capita meat consumption has increased while rice consumption has decreased.
Everyone gets to help cook! Barbecue usually requires a minimum order. We paid the minimum for 4 when there were only 3 of us.
I love the Korean BBQ. First step is cooking the meat and then adding some vegetables and finally stirfrying cooked rice in the leftover juices and flavors.

Kimchi is Korea’s national dish and there are many varieties of this fermented vegetable dish. The most common is made with napa cabbage, Korean radish, or sometimes cucumber, and fermented in a brine of ginger, garlic, scallions, and chili pepper. 

Notice the dark red kimchi in this and the following photo. South Koreans eat an average of 40 pounds of Kimchi each year.

Kimchi is packed with vitamin A, thiamine B1, riboflavin B2, calcium, and iron. Its main benefit though is found in the bacteria lactobacilli; this is found in yogurt and fermented food and helps with digestion.  

A meal of tasty beef bone broth – and kimchi.

Desserts are the third component of Korean dishes. But we haven’t found any desserts that satisfy our Western sweet tooth! 

One Korean dessert is the rice cake. Although not native to Korea, rice is used to make a number of items outside of the traditional bowl of plain white rice. It is commonly ground into a flour and used to make rice cakes in over two hundred varieties. 


Things to Know Before You Go…

Serving sizes are larger than the entrees in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Menus are scarce. Often the menu is painted on the wall – in Korean.

Prices include taxes and labor. Tipping restaurant staff is not customary.

Self service for drinking water and kimchi bar is common, as well as toilet paper “napkins”

Korea has embraced the coffee culture but we found the prices at the coffee shops to be pretty steep for some weak 1 and 2-shot drinks. At Starbucks, a venti americano costs around $4.50. There is a lot of competition and small “take-out” coffee stands offer a less expensive alternative.

Bread is a newer novelty to Koreans and bakeries are common, the chain of Paris Baguette bakeries are seen in every neighborhood. We never saw a bakery when we visited in the 1980s.

The “Pizza From Around the World” segment… 

A Bulgogi pizza! Bulgogi is the sweet beef and carmelized onion Korean specialty. It didn’t really satisfy the pizza craving!

In a few hours we begin the final segment of our complete Round-the-World circumnavigation. Layovers in Tokyo and Los Angeles will cause it to be a long 24+ hour journey home, and yet because we cross the International Date Line it will be the longest day of our lives. We leave at 9:30am and arrive (24+ hours later) at 6:00pm of the same day, May 2, 2016.

Meet You in the Morning next time with sightseeing photos all around beautiful Busan.

Stay tuned. Exciting news about our future plans coming soon!

2 responses to “Bountiful Banchan:  Korean Food

  1. Yes, Elisa, that’s so true. I’m making new friends all over the globe extending invitations to come visit and receiving invitations to come back soon. Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment too!


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