Discover Banchan: The Art of Korean Side Dishes

Rom America



5 min

Exploring the Rise of Korean Cuisine: From Gimbap to Banchan

Last year, a Korean culinary delight took the American food scene by storm: Trader Joe's Gimbap. Lauded in the media as a shining example of the Korean Wave, it became an instant hit, selling out across stores within a month. However, it was Korean barbecue that truly captured the essence of Korean cuisine for Americans. Found throughout Koreatown, Korean barbecue offers an immersive dining experience, where sizzling meats are cooked right at your table, accompanied by an array of side dishes. 

This not only provided great value in a time of tightened budgets but also introduced American palates, typically oriented towards single-course meals, to the diverse array of Korean side dishes. These sides have now become as popular in the U.S. as in Korea. Let me share with you five of my favorite Korean side dishes, showcasing the depth and variety of this cuisine.

Savoring Korean Cuisine: A Visual and Culinary Feast

In American restaurants, side dishes often come with an additional cost, which can be burdensome due to rising inflation. However, Korean restaurants offer a different experience, providing a variety of complimentary side dishes with the main course. This approach, gaining popularity on social media, is seen as a refreshing change in American dining culture.

Korea's agricultural roots are deeply intertwined with the cultivation of rice and barley, ensuring a year-round supply of these grains. To complement the nutritional profile of rice, a variety of side dishes are crafted, making the dining experience not only fulfilling but also visually appealing. A characteristic of Korean meals is the emphasis on a fully set table, offering a feast for the eyes as well as the palate. Korean cooking is less about strict recipes and more about personal touches and regional ingredients, resulting in diverse and unique flavors in every household.

Key types of Korean side dishes include vegetables, meats, and salted seafood. Vegetable sides, often seasonal, are dried and stored to provide a rich source of vitamins and fiber throughout the year. Classics include bean sprouts, ferns, sweet potato shoots, and dried radish.

19세기 말 조선시대 양반 남성의 일상 식사. 명지전문대 백성현 교수 소장.

Historically, as noted by Professor Seong-Hyeon Baek from Myongji College, noble meals during the Joseon Dynasty reflected this diversity. Meat and fish dishes, essential for protein, are prepared in various ways such as simmering, grilling, or steaming, seasoned with a variety of traditional sauces like soy sauce, red pepper powder, and red pepper paste.

Salted seafood, a cornerstone of Korean cooking, is made by fermenting fish meat or organs with salt or seasonings. While not yet widely embraced in the United States, its unique umami flavor is an integral part of Korean cuisine, notably influencing the taste of Korea’s iconic dish, Kimchi. Each element of a Korean meal contributes to a rich, multi-sensory dining experience, showcasing the depth and variety of Korean culinary traditions

Five Must-Try Korean Side Dishes in America

1. Roasted Seaweed

A true leader in global production, Korean seaweed, often referred to as the 'semiconductor of the sea,' makes up 57% of the world's supply as of 2021. Initially underestimated, it has now become a part of the superfood trend. Influential figures like Kylie Jenner and Alicia Keys have highlighted its appeal to the MZ generation in the U.S. Increasingly popular year-round, roasted seaweed is versatile. It's enjoyed as a snack and is evolving into a sought-after side dish, particularly when wrapped around rice to create mini kimbap or used as a flavorful rice topping. Its unique taste and umami kick, especially when combined with condiments like sriracha or mayonnaise, make it a must-try.

Jenner recorded stopmi eating
Kylie Jenner Youtube

2. Fried Anchovies

Photo Credit by Stella&Spice 

A proverb suggests that love can be found in food, and this is certainly true for Korean side dishes like fried anchovies. These small fish are a staple in Korean cuisine, often found in household refrigerators. Prepared in larger batches for multiple servings, they're stir-fried with soy sauce or red pepper paste, and sweetened with starch syrup, creating a perfect blend of salty and sweet flavors. 

Pair them with rice, seaweed, and kimchi for a simple yet satisfying meal. Fried anchovies exemplify the richness and heartiness of Korean side dishes, making them a beloved choice for many.

3. Pickled Garlic and Garlic Stems

Known globally for their tangy, sweet, and slightly acidic flavors, pickles are a favorite appetizer. In Korean cuisine, one of the cherished varieties is pickled garlic, often referred to as 'garlic jong'. 

This dish is crafted by boiling a mixture of vinegar, sugar, and soy sauce, and then immersing cleaned garlic and garlic stems in the blend. After a few days of storage, they're ready to eat. 

For those keen on DIY, you can follow recipes like the one from Kimchimari, a renowned Korean food blogger who shares a family recipe. Alternatively, for convenience, pickled garlic and garlic stems are available online, like the popular choices at Rome America.

4. Dried Radish

A winter staple in Korean cuisine, dried radish is prepared in finger-sized sticks, offering a chewy texture that contrasts with the crunchiness of its raw counterpart. This preparation method is a solution for enjoying vegetables during colder months when fresh produce is scarce. Widely available in Korean markets and online platforms like Rome America, dried radish is a convenient and tasty addition to any meal. 

Before cooking, it's advisable to soak the radish sticks in water for several minutes to rehydrate them, followed by a thorough rinse. For culinary inspiration, check out recipes from Mangchi, a leading Korean food blogger, to explore different ways to incorporate dried radish into your meals.

5. Fern

Ways to prepare charye (ancestral rite) tables differ by region and household, but a common practice is to place on them tteokguk (rice cake soup), fruit, tea or alcohol. (Dongwon Group)

The final side dish worth exploring is fern, specifically bracken fern, a staple in Korean cuisine. Bracken holds a special place in Korean culture, particularly featured in Jesa Day celebrations, which honor deceased family members. This day is marked by setting a special ancestral rite table where bracken fern is a customary dish. Known as "mountain beef" due to its high protein, vitamin, and potassium content, bracken is a celebrated vegetable side dish in Korea. It's typically dried and stored, making it a versatile ingredient available throughout the year. 

In the United States, when discussing quintessential Korean food, bracken often comes up, especially as a key ingredient in the beloved dish, bibimbap. To fully enjoy its unique, chewy texture, it's recommended to soak the dried bracken in water overnight before cooking. After soaking, boil it for about 15 to 20 minutes, and then it's ready to be added to your favorite dish.

There are side dishes in Korean culture that are becoming more and more widely known as the popularity of Korean food. Preparing at least two side dishes for one meal is not an easy task. Side dishes are not just food, but a Korean emotion that allows you to see the sincerity and hard work of Korean mothers preparing meals. Today, how about preparing a meal for mom with warm rice and side dishes? Please share your ideas!