Even for a Korean, trying to cook Korean can be a challenge. It takes a lot of work to make a traditional meal that usually consists of steamed rice, soup, a main dish and a selection of banchans. Banchans are small side dishes that accompany a meal. Some banchans are already made items that can be stored in the fridge for a time like kimchi (typically spicy pickled and fermented cabbage but can be made with other vegetables) and jorim (stewed beef). More commonly, most banchans are made fresh daily and consist of namul (seasoned vegetable), jun (Korean pancakes) or bokkeum (stir-fried dish).
I have just re-read what I wrote above and I must say, my description doesn’t really do Korean food justice. It is hard to describe and unless you have had Korean food, harder to envision from mere descriptions.
Fortunately, I live in an area where there are Korean grocery stores with extensive selections. The one I go to make fresh kimchi and it is usually quite good. Even my mother has no complaints. I can also find traditional Korean vegetables like bean sprouts to make my namul. Unfortunately, while the store is only about a 40 minute drive, I can only make the trip about once in every three months. When I go, I stock up on non-perishables and frozen items and buy as much fresh ingredient as my family can consume in a week. And we eat traditional Korean meals for the whole week.
All other time, we eat pseudo-Korean, Asian fusion, sorta Asian meals when we are eating “Asian” meals. These meals typically would consist of steamed rice, a stir-fry dish and may be one banchan made from a vegetable found in a regular grocery store. All depending on the vegetable in season and/or on sale, my motivation level and how much time I have to prepare the meal.
Here are some typical banchans that I make:
- Broccoli namul
- Spinach namul
- Cucumber sangche
- Spicy salad
- Fried frozen dumplings ( Yes, I know, but some brands are quite good)
- Fried tofu
I will start writing out the recipes for the rest soon and link!
Over the years, especially back when Korean supermarkets were not readily available my parents and I had found that some Western food items made surprisingly good banchan. You may laugh or gag, but one not-so-surprising item is SPAM. SPAM got introduced to Korea through the U.S Military back during either W.WII or the Korean Warm. I don’t remember if we ate SPAM in Korea but we certainly did here in U.S. We would slice it thin and fry it until slightly crispy and eat it with rice. I think SPAM was part of my diet until I went to college. In the same vein as SPAM, we would eat grilled or fried hotdogs with rice. Other items were green olives, pickles and pepperoncini peppers. The salty, vinegary and spicy taste is reminescent of poor man’s kimchi.
We, or rather my mother even learned to grow some of the traditional vegetables including Korean radishes, cabbages, Korean perilla and soybean sprouts when we lived far, far, far away from any Korean community.
We also learned to appreciate and eventually love American food. Well, Italian-American food like spaghetti, pizza and lasagna. People may find this surprising, but Italian and Korean food go well together. I think there are a lot of surprising similarities between the two cultures. Sometimes, I swear my father and my father-in-law are twins born to different parents in two different countries. They have surprisingly similar taste in food! But that’s a whole different topic…
Anyway, maybe more than a little bit about Korean food? May be too much? Well, stayed tuned because I am going to follow up with my version of bul-go-gi and bibimbap recipes as well as a generic all around recipe for most namuls!