Confusion and embarrassment, more than anything else, keep diners from exploring new cuisines. Nobody likes to look stupid or feel stupid, though —not to brag— I often do both at once.
That’s especially true for foreign cuisines, which can be daunting to try because of both a language barrier and adjusting your tastes to those of a different culture.
So I sat down with Sun Ha, owner of Taste of Korea, to talk about one of the most-loved and least-understood parts of the Korean food experience: banchan.
When you order at a Korean restaurant, you are often given lots of tiny bowls filled with a variety of different foods. This is banchan. It’s not an appetizer, necessarily, but it’s okay to eat them. Banchan is more a group of condiments and flavor enhancers meant to be eaten with your meal.
Before we get into what the different banchan are, let me tell you why I want you to eat at Taste of Korea: The food is great. The location is...not as great. Just west of Film Row, Taste of Korea is at the corner of Western and Sheridan avenues. The street just south of Taste of Korea has been demolished, which has cut down on a lot of thru-traffic, which in turn cuts down on business.
If you’d like to try this banchan and also eat some wonderful Korean food, please give Taste of Korea a try. I promise you won’t be disappointed. Sun Ha cooks with her heart and it comes through in every bite. Making customers happy is her happiness.
This little dish is full of steamed soybean sprouts tossed with some seasonings. It’s cool and has a nice snap to it. They recommended it be used on bibimbap. If you haven’t had Korean food before, bibimbap is the perfect place to start.
Medium dice potatoes are stir-fried with soy sauce and a little sugar to create these lovely little bites. Careful, though — you’ll pop one in your mouth and suddenly they’re all gone and the people at your table are looking at you like, “WHAT THE HELL, GREG?!” and you’re like, “I’m sorry, Michelle, I think I have a problem.”
Pickled daikon radish. A little sweet, a little sour, probably more sour. Lovely little crisp crunches that add a burst of flavor to rich dishes and a little moisture, too.
Fishcake is, well, it’s fish. And this fishcake is sliced into thin strips, cooked and tossed with carrots, garlic, green onion and bell pepper. It’s got almost a noodle-y texture to it, just a touch of chew, but it’s not fishy.
O E kimchi
This ain’t your father’s kimchi. Unless you father was Korean and loved cucumbers, because that’s what this is: cucumber kimchi. You know how pickles are cucumbers that have been fermented in spices? That’s like this, but spicier.
Rinsed and stir-fried kimchi
Sun Ha said this beige kimchi was some of the most authentic, because it’s like her mother used to make. You might think kimchi can ferment indefinitely, but at some point it starts to sour beyond its intended taste. That’s when the kimchi is rinsed and stir-fried. It’s not as spicy, but still has lots of flavor and retains crunch.
Pickled, fermented cabbage. As a child, you probably could not have paid me enough to eat kimchi, but now I like to hunker down over a plate of it and crunch my way through half a jar. Spicy, crunchy, chilled and delicious, I put kimchi on almost everything I get at a Korean restaurant. If you’re interested in tasting it as part of a dish, try the kimchi fried rice.