• Don't forget the banchan (PxHere)Source: PxHere
When people think of Korean food, barbecue, fried chicken and kimchi come to mind. But it's more varied than that and better when cooked at home.
Heather Jeong

8 Nov 2021 - 11:10 AM  UPDATED 23 Nov 2021 - 4:36 PM

A traditional Korean meal consists of rice, soup and small meat portions with side dishes called banchan; it's all served together.

I grew up in Korea and have fond memories of colourful banchan laid out on the family table. It was a feast for the eyes and soul, yet they're relatively simple to make and eaten at room temperature. There was also jjigae (a thick soup) served in a claypot, called a ttukbaegi. JJigae was always piping hot and bubbling.

Eating was glorious and kept you busy. In winter, the most delicious dish was fizzy, icy-cold kimchi straight out of earthenware called ddukbaegi.

The comforting sundubu jjigae (soft tofu stew) at Melbourne's Dooboo.

Here's how to create your own Korean spread or bapsang.


Rice (bap)

Rice is the backbone of Korean meals. Koreans even greet each other with "Have you had bap (rice) today?".

Health-conscious Koreans add multigrain, such as barley, oats and legumes, to white shortgrain rice to make multigrain rice (hyunmi bap). Most rice cookers have built-in pressure cookers to speed up cooking.  

Soup (guk)

Along with kimchi, the heart of Korean cuisine is soup. Soup is served as part of the main meal, instead of as a starter. 

Most soups are broth-based and made with either dried anchovies and seaweed, meat or shellfish. They include many vegetables. The broth may be clear or flavoured with soybean paste or chilli. There are also celebratory soups such as seaweed soup (miyeok guk) for birthdays and rice-cake soup (tteokguk) for New Year's Day. 

It's the perfect remedy for the hot weather.

Thicker soups, known as jjigae, are usually shared and served in earthenware that's placed at the centre of a table. They take less time to cook. Most popular and loved are kimchi, soybean paste or sundubu (soft-tofu) jjigae. 

Most hangover-cure soups, known as tangs, are served by the bowl. These include oxtail soup, seolleongtang (white-bone broth) and samgyetang (chicken and ginseng), which promotes wellbeing. Seafood-based tangs often contain chilli. One thing to note, though: many tangs actually invite you to drink more soju.

Last but not least, is hotpot or jeongol. These are placed in the middle of the table for sharing. Gregarious friends and family accompany the broth with seafood, meats and vegetables, which they cook on a portable burner on the table.

Soft tofu hotpot

Korean soft tofu hotpot is the ultimate comfort food, especially during cold winter months. Fresh tofu in pork, seafood and chilli broth bubbling away in a clay pot will become a regular player on your dinner table. Rice and various side dishes are served alongside the hotpot.

Meat (gogi)

Koreans often grill or barbecue meat on the tabletop too. This allows them to cook pork-belly slices and different cuts of prime beef to perfection, then eat them straight off the heat. Dip the meat into ssamjang (chilli and soybean sauce) or salt and pepper drowned in sesame oil. Wrap them in lettuce and kkaetnip (wild sesame leaves) and rice. Accompany with pa muchim (spring onion salad) and raw garlic slices. 

Korean chilli pork (daeji bulgogi)

Traditionally cooked at the table over a charcoal grill or gas hot plate, chilli pork is Korea’s answer to sang choi bau and is the perfect accompaniment to an ice-cold beer.

Marinated meats, such as bulgogi, jeyuk bokkeum (pork) and yang yeum galbi (short ribs), are delicious barbecued or stir-fried. 

Slow-cooked ribs and oxtail are braised in soy and eaten especially during special occasions.

Fish (sangsun)

Koreans love to eat raw fish or shellfish dipped into chilli sauce and accompany this with soju. Traditionally, fish were lightly salted and sun-dried before cooking. 

Some family favourites include sangsun jorim (fish braised in soy and chilli with radish), haemul jeongol (seafood hotpot) and kkotgae tang (crab soup).

Side dishes (banchan)

Most banchan are eaten cold and at room temperature so they can be cooked ahead of time and stored in the fridge for several days, or in the case of kimchi, for several months or even years.

Namul includes vegetables — roots and all —, wild greens, mushrooms and blanched seaweed, which is seasoned with various ingredients and sesame oil. Korea has one of the highest vegetable consumptions per capita, and it's believed that namul is behind this.

Korean banchan (Korean side dishes)

Banchan refers to small side dishes of food served with cooked rice in Korean cuisine. The cuisine is famous for an amazing array of banchan recipes, which are made to accompany many Korean meals to complement and accentuate the flavours of the main dishes. Often colourful and varied, banchan is set in the middle of the table to be shared.

Other banchan includes meat and vegetables, which are braised in soy sauce, stir-fried and seasoned. Kimchi is a popular banchan. Kimchi is a super pickle that can be made from any vegetable; there are many different varieties. Although chilli kimchi, made from cabbage and radish, they include water-based kimchi and white kimchi, reigns supreme.  

Cabbage kimchi

Often people buy kimchi and place it straight into the fridge. However, taste it first to see if it has tang and fizz. If not, leave it at room temperature for a day or two to ferment before storing it in the fridge.

Koreans generally make or buy poggi kimchi (traditional kimchi that hasn't been sliced). These are harder to make but certainly taste better and can last for months or even years in Korean kimchi fridges.

Korean radish kimchi (gak dugi)

This recipe takes 2 to 3 days to ferment but the first clean sharp crunch of this kimchi will convince you that your hard work is worthwhile.

Noodles (myun)

Koreans enjoy noodles made from wheat, soba and sweet potato, which can be served hot or icy cold. Koreans love noodle soups with stock made from dried anchovies and seafood, such as kalguksu (knife-cut noodles). Jjajangmyeon or black bean noodles are so popular that we joke that inflation is measured by the cost of one bowl. Celebratory japchae or sweet potato noodles are seasoned with plenty of soy and sesame oil. 

Spicy Korean noodles with cucumber and egg (bibim guksu)

Made with thin, wheat-flour noodles called so myeon, bibim guksu is easy to prepare, extremely tasty and especially popular during the summer months in Korea. Adjust the chilli to suit and add tomato sauce to balance the heat.

Pan-fried food (jun) 

Pan-fried food is one of the most important types of food in Korean cuisine. Seafood, vegetables and meat are added to batter or egg and pan-fried until golden brown.

This type of cuisine is usually served as an entree, but it's best when paired with alcohol. There's nothing better than pan-fried seafood with dong dong ju or alcohol after a day of mountain hiking.

Korean desserts

Some sweet Korean food includes sweet rice cakes filled with red or mung beans, which are served between meals. Usually, seasonal fruit is served at the end of a meal.

In summer, Koreans prefer watermelon and berries, and in the colder months, the sweetest and juiciest Korean pears and black grapes.

Korean shaved ice (pat bingsu)

The best remedy for sweltering summer heat has to be the mountainous pat bingsu – a big pile of shaved ice adorned with sweet red bean paste, chewy rice cake and an array of fruits.

Hotteok (pan-fried rice cakes) filled with brown sugar syrup are worth lining up for from a street vendor in the cold. Bingu (a shaved ice dessert) is a must after a day spent exploring the city.


Cook with Heather Jeong and her recipes right here.

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