"Banchan is very important to me," says Sunny Lee, who leads the banchan program at the Korean restaurant Insa in Brooklyn, New York. "It has a very long history in Korea."
Banchan means side dish in Korean, but in reality it's a bunch of small dishes filled to the brim with pickles and the like that scatter the table at lunch or dinner. And if you've ever eaten at a Korean barbecue restaurant, or somewhere more traditional, you'll know them by their multitude, and that they all somehow fit together: often different kimchis and beans, or sprouts and tiny fish to snack on before and with a meal. I asked Sunny, and Michael Stokes, Insa's chef de cuisine, to give me a lowdown on banchan, and how its history details much of Korea's itself.
Sunny and Michael incorporate ingredients into their banchan that you wouldn't normally see—for instance, locally grown kale—mostly because they try to source many of their ingredients regionally, to reflect the indigenous vegetables of the city and New York State and to give the food a homey vibe, to remove it from the restaurant setting. And while a lot of Korean restaurants never change their banchan offerings (kimchi is kimchi is kimchi), Insa's rotates seasonally to showcase what's growing at that moment nearby, with techniques and flavorings that aren't replicated again and again. "A lot of people think that banchan is just kimchi, but actually less than half is kimchi," Sunny says.
A lot of people think that banchan is just kimchi, but actually less than half is kimchi.
Sunny Lee, who leads the banchan program at Insa in Brooklyn, NY
And this approach, they say, actually more accurately reflects how banchan has been made and consumed throughout its history.
"During the Joseon period, 1392 AD to 1897 AD, the branches of the Six Ministries—basically governmental departments—were tasked with procuring foods from the eight regions of Korea each month," Michael explains. He goes on to tell me that specialties from each region were highlighted on the royal table, giving the king an indication of the conditions and prosperity of the regions.
And while it's difficult to pinpoint exactly when banchan took it's shape as a vegetable-driven course in Korean cuisine, Michael explains that it happened when Buddhism became the predominant religion in the country, towards the end of the Three Kingdoms Period (57 AD to 668 AD). "Buddhist doctrine forbids the consumption of meat. This contributed greatly to the development of vegetable-based banchan we see today," he adds. Further, Michael says, Buddhism had a strong influence on the country's food until the Mongol invasions, which began during the 13th century. After this, meat again became more prevalent in the Korean diet. But banchan remained an integral part of most Korean meals.
Next time you're making bulgogi, kalbi or bibimbap, whip up a few of Insa's banchan recipes, below, too, and you'll have a proper spread.