Here's What's in All Those Little Dishes at Korean Barbecue
The Korean small plates called banchan (which literally translates to "side dishes,") are served ahead of the main course, but they're not appetizers. They represent a category unto themselves: snacks-within-a-meal that function as complements, contrasts, and condiments all at once. And they're totally necessary.
Given that they're not typically listed on the menu and there are 250 million (we counted!) kinds of banchan you may encounter in any given restaurant on any given day, it's not likely a newbie would have any clue what's in all of those little dishes. (Unless it's kimchee -- zero excuses there.)
So here's all the banchan that you're most likely to find in restaurants stateside. Use this in conjunction with our dos and don'ts of Korean dining and our KBBQ guide, and... well, you'll still have a lot of learning to do. This is a cuisine with a lot of moving parts. But at least you'll have a head start.
Kongnamul (seasoned soybean sprouts)
Judiciously tinged with sesame, soy, scallions, and garlic, soybean sprouts are a cool and snappy foil to the grilled meats.
Cheongpomuk (mung bean jelly)
The name translates as "clear froth jelly," which sounds like something you should be paid handsomely for putting in your mouth. But it's actually just mung bean starch, and it does pretty much what lemon sorbet does during a fancy French feast: cleanses the palate. Garnished with a little sesame oil and/or soy sauce, maybe a little chile and scallion, it's one part flavor to three parts texture. (Muk made from acorn starch is also common, though wiggling cubes of liver-brown gelatin take a little getting used to, which in turn takes a lot of soju.)
Danmuji (pickled radish)
"Show any Korean pickled yellow daikon with onion, and they'll know right off the bat" that the main course will be jajangmyeon, or Chinese-influenced black bean noodles, says Joe Kim of Dae Gee in Denver. That's how closely the two are associated. It's important to note here, however, that danmuji is just the sweet-and-sour daikon part. Onions come separate.
Be it dashima (kelp), miyeok (wakame), or gim (laver), squeaky clean and bright or almost oily and iron-y, seaweed can pop up in so many shapes, sizes, and guises that we're lumping them together under the English catch-all. Keep a special eye out for tangy, vinegary salads, roasted "chips," or salt-and-sugar-sprinkled flakes fried in oil.
Gamja saelleodeu (potato salad)
The name literally translates to "potato salad," and often, that's what it looks and tastes like. Sometimes it's studded with bits of carrot, apple, peas, and/or various other fruits and veggies, other times it's so creamy, smooth, and sweet it's like a scoop of ice cream.
Gyeran or maechurial jorim (soy-simmered chicken or quail eggs)
These eggs often appear as part of an elaborate banchan starring beef (sogogi jangjorim), which according to Ilsan-based writer Dave Hazzan, would most likely be served with something "less meat-heavy" than, say, barbecue. We prefer the eggs all by themselves -- they're just the thing for that second or third bottle of soju.
Kkakdugi (radish kimchee)
As Hazzan observes, "kimchee alone comes in hundreds of varieties," from cucumber to scallion to eggplant, so it would be unreasonable to include all of them in this list. No one's got time for that much fermented product not called beer. But cubed radish kimchee with ground red chiles (gochugaru) is a crisp, slightly sweet, and plenty spicy staple among staples; it goes with the hearty beef soup called gumtang in particular.
Eomuk bokkeum (fried fishcake)
Bokkeum are essentially stir-fried dishes. Among banchan, the most common is probably fishcake. At its occasional worst, you may as well be chewing on Band-Aids; but at its best, the texture's almost pasta-like, the flavor rich and meaty beneath the sweet-savory glaze it attains during cooking.
Gamja jorim or goguma mattang (braised potatoes)
This consists of potatoes or, better yet, sweet potatoes candy-coated in a reduction of soy and corn syrup with garlic and sesame seeds. It's fantastic -- that's about all you need to know.
Gyeran mari (omelet roll)
While the sheer plenitude of banchan can make the most routine Korean meal feel like a special occasion, there's something about this omelet roulade sprinkled with veggie confetti that makes it feel like a surprise party. (Same goes for the savory custard called gyeran jjim.)
Saewoo or myulchi bokkeum (fried dried shrimp or anchovies)
If your server brings you a dish of tiny dried shrimp or anchovies stir-fried in a sweet soy syrup, prepare to inhale dozens of critters in a few quick bites, because the crunchy little things are too good to pass up. (The easily creeped might find the variant made with shredded squid easier to stomach -- it looks like shaved carrot.)
Jeon (pancakes... kind of)
Totally cheating here, because although it's most associated with savory pancakes, the term jeon covers a whole host of floured/breaded/battered pan-fried goodies that can contain just about anything -- meat, seafood, veggies -- and resemble anything from fritters to croquettes to tempura to poppers. The point is they're all fried, and therefore all delicious. That said, a table without a classic green onion pancake like pajeon or kimchijeon may as well be bare as far as we're concerned.
Baechu kimchee (spicy pickled cabbage)
Punchy-as-hell fermented cabbage is the reigning world champ of things to eat on other things, from tacos to hot dogs to pizza.
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If Ruth Tobias ever does roll naked in a vat of dried seaweed flakes, you'll read about it on Twitter: @Denveater.