Small dishes, big flavors
A certain strip down Folsom Boulevard specializes in the small side dishes that are simultaneously served (sometimes by the dozen) right before entrees in Korean cuisine
Imagine visiting a restaurant where 18 distinct side dishes are placed on your table simultaneously just a couple of minutes before your main dish arrives. You share them with your dining companions using metal chopsticks that may seem slippery for the uninitiated, but that’s part of the fun.
This sort of dining experience is found on a short stretch of Folsom Boulevard reaching out to Rancho Cordova, where there are four Korean restaurants that each offer a diverse array of side dishes, known as banchan.
The Korean kings traditionally enjoyed 12 banchan in a full meal called surasang. (Read: Traditional Food: A Taste of Korean Life (Korea Essentials) written by Robert Koehler.) Troy Tam, a server at YD House (5609 Folsom Boulevard), boasted, “We have 18 banchan.”
Julie Kim, a server at Hankook Tofu House, said that it serves 11 appetizers, most of them vegan, except for the fish cake. “The owner, Teresa Cho, makes our banchan fresh every day,” Kim added. “A lot of love goes into them when she makes them.”
So what are banchan? (pronounced “panchan”) The small dishes are often made with vegetables such as spinach, potatoes and bean sprouts, and are prepared in ways that preserve their nutritional integrity.
SN&R visited four traditional Korean restaurants along the Folsom Boulevard strip to sample 50 different banchan that complement entrees such as grilled mackerel, galbi (beef short ribs with Korean barbecue sauce) and deep-fried sesame chicken chunks covered in a special soy sauce.
Banchan can be sweet or sour, creamy or crisp, spicy or mild. Here’s an overview of what to expect while dining:
Kimchi is the quintessential banchan. It’s a requirement of any Korean meal, and it’s usually made with Napa cabbage. Grace Yoon, a manager at Mo Du Rang (9545 Folsom Boulevard), explained the recipe through a translator: “The kimchi has garlic, ginger, green onion and chili powder. Some kimchi has fish powder, fish sauce, little shrimp even.”
Kimchi takes two to four days to ferment in brine, and it’s traditionally made to last the bitter winter. Use the scissors provided at your table to cut the long wilted, reddened cabbage leaves and enjoy its slightly sour, spicy flavor.
Banchan and sauces, or jang, go hand-in-hand. Pine Tree House (9205 Folsom Boulevard, Suite D) serves a pan-fried tofu (or dubu) side dish accompanied by a sauce made with soy sauce, little peppers, sesame seeds and sesame oil. The sauce balances the flavor of the firm, hearty tofu.
The most common jang are ganjang (Korean soy sauce), doenjang (fermented soy beans) and gochujang (spicy red pepper paste). Think of them as colors on an artist’s palette: They’re mixed together and they’re served hot and cold.
There’s a simple banchan made with a special sweet, gooey ganjang and soft-cooked potatoes called gamjajorim. “It’s served hot after it is made just before lunch service, and then cold at dinnertime,” Yoon said.
It’s also ubiquitous at Korean restaurants, so get ready for its rib-sticking, brown syrupy sweetness.
Hoe, or raw fish, is its own category of banchan.
But beware: Sometimes hoe means raw squid cut like little, floppy french fries. The side dish called ojingeo jang is raw squid served in a spicy, savory, garlicky sauce made with gojuchang: the sauce neutralizes the slimy squid’s fishiness.
“Raw fish is a big part of Korean food,” Yoon said. So if you were thinking uncooked fish was exclusively Japanese, or just for ceviche, think again.
Feeling adventurous? There are spicy banchan made with raw thumbnail-sized crabs. Ask for maeun gejang. You eat them whole, shell and all.
Back to the vegetables, which dominate banchan. When asked about the most popular banchan at Hankook Tofu House (9521 Folsom Boulevard), Kim said, “I wanna say japchae, which is noodles, carrots, cabbage, bell peppers and onions.”
The clear noodles are made from sweet potatoes, and sesame oil makes them gleam. The dish has a calming effect, like cold Japanese soba noodles. Order something spicy in another banchan for balance.
Let’s address the rules for eating all these banchan. In the United States, each diner tends to get a little white dish to pile on their banchan. However, in Korea, all participants eat directly from the same banchan side dishes.
Don’t lift the banchan from the table. That’s a no-no, a selfish act. And sliding them about using your chopsticks to grip them is also off limits and considered rude, at least in Korea, though restaurant staff on this side of the Pacific are especially understanding of violations. Staff at the four Folsom Boulevard restaurants showed nothing but appreciation for our willingness to dive in. And as Kim from Hanook Tofu House indicated, “It’s not rude to ask for more of any banchan.”
There are more than 20 Korean restaurants in the Sacramento area. The cuisine is here to stay given its 5,000-year history and delectable variety. And although there’s much more to choose from when it comes to Chinese and Japanese food in the area, how about asking a friend next time hunger strikes, “Wanna do Korean?”