And I especially like the sweet black beans
November 18, 2008 9:11 AM   Subscribe

Is the fact that I really like eating the banchan more than the meal at my local Korean restaurant looked at as odd?

I hate to admit this, but I think I almost love banchan more than many of the dishes I eat at the Korean place. The ladies at the restaurant seem to think this is weird. I am wondering if they think of it the same way I would if someone came into my (imaginary) restaurant and really, really liked eating horseradish and relish.

I know that banchan is often translated to "side dishes", but I have had some Korean acquaintances in the past tell me that it is more in between condiment and side dish. Just wondering what those Mefites in know had to say.
posted by oflinkey to Food & Drink (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Are you Korean? If you're not Korean they probably think it's weird because you're not Korean and you're enjoying the banchan more than what guests typically are there for, like the bbq (I'm guessing that's what they are serving there mainly)

As a Korean, I grew up eating just rice and kimchee for breakfast so no, I don't think picking over just the banchan is weird at all and I think it's actually quite a common meal for things like lunch when you don't need a main meat dish.
posted by like_neon at 9:25 AM on November 18, 2008

Rice and banchan is a totally reasonable casual meal, but I can see why restaurant ajumahs might think it's odd - the banchan are usually free with whatever the "main" is, and they might think you're filling up on banchan to stretch food, especially in a group (sort of like that guy who asks for two baskets of free chips and salsa at the Tex-Mex place, and barely orders anything).

Between a side dish and a condiment is a good way to describe most banchan. They are generally pretty concentrated/intense, and go on the table to round out the represented flavors. I tend to think of it as bad manners to eat a whole dish of a given thing by itself - for one thing, you can't properly appreciate super-spicy raw crab pickle or sugared/salted minnows or salt-preserved soybeans on their own. A bit from time to time accents whatever else you're eating by playing spicy off bland or sweet off sour or whatever; an entire bowl of any given banchan is overwhelming and unbalanced. Picture someone eating the entire dish of cranberry sauce and little else at Thanksgiving - that's a pretty close comparison.
posted by peachfuzz at 9:40 AM on November 18, 2008

Are you my husband? My husband lurves all those little dishes at the Korean restaurants. In fact, when he's in the mood for Korean food, he'll often say "Let's go get some little dishes!" and it is understood that he means Korean food.

He's not Korean either, so you are not alone.

and now my husband will be delighted to know the proper term for his beloved little dishes.
posted by ambrosia at 9:41 AM on November 18, 2008

From a business standpoint, they probably don't like that you are filling up on the free stuff (I've only been to a handful of Korean places but I don't think I've ever paid for banchan) and not ordering lots of the main attraction. It's probably a good idea to tip well.
posted by spec80 at 9:42 AM on November 18, 2008

Response by poster: OK, to clarify: I do not ask for any more banchan than what I am initially served, I do order a main dish and eat a good lot of that, and I do tip well, having been in the service industry myself ;)

So it is not as if I am whoofing plates and plates of the stuff. I just wondered since there is a bit of rotation in the selection of the banchan, and I get inordinately excited to see what will be up next for my palate. The kind women cluck and shake their heads-- I just wondered what flavor of weird I was presenting.
posted by oflinkey at 10:08 AM on November 18, 2008

It wouldn't be weird if you were eating in a Korean restaurant in Korea, or eating at someone's home. Everyday home-cooked meals often consist of rice, some kind of broth or stew, and banchan. And in Korean restaurants in Korea that are the equivalent of U.S. diners, one of the menu items is something that translates to "rice and soup" which is just that and banchan.

Many Korean groceries sell little containers of freshly made banchan - if you have a Korean grocery nearby you could avoid the weirdness by buying banchan and feasting at home. Or you can try making your own.

Sweet black beans:
2 C beans
1/2 C soy sauce
1 C water
3 Tb sugar
Toasted sesame seeds (optional)

1. Wash and sort through beans, then soak for at least 1 hour.
2. Cover beans with water and cook.
3. When water has reduced to about half taste one of the beans. If it doesn't smell "raw" add the soy sauce and cook over medium-low heat. Stir frequently.
4. When liquid is almost gone and beans look wrinkly, stir in sugar.
5. Once beans are glossy turn off heat and sprinkle toasted sesame seeds on top.

Korean grocery stores sell a type of black bean which is green under the skin. This is the type of bean usually used for this dish.
posted by needled at 10:17 AM on November 18, 2008 [4 favorites]

I am saying this assuming you are white (or not easily mistaken for Asian at least). They probably think its a little "funny" in a cute way that you are going straight for the stuff that many Americans generally pass over.
posted by BobbyDigital at 10:18 AM on November 18, 2008

P.S. sorry I was working directly from a Korean cookbook and in step 3, it should be "simmer" instead of "cook over medium-low heat." I tend to wing it when making Korea food so I have to check out recipes in cookbooks when explaining to other people.
posted by needled at 10:22 AM on November 18, 2008

With your clarification, I agree with BobbyDigital. This is food those ladies grew up with. It is common, everyday - perhaps mundane. To see someone else get really excited over it is probably entertaining or odd.
posted by spec80 at 10:38 AM on November 18, 2008

Best answer: Yea, the banchan=side dishes isn't a totally correct way of thinking. It definitely is more of a "condiments for your rice that comes on the side" type of idea. Like it's hard to explain exactly, but think of it as a relationship between pasta and sauce. Two separate entities that are kind of necessary to each other. You don't always have to order the main dishes at an Italian restaurant, but the pasta will come with some sort of sauce? Something like that. So no, it's not weird to like it more than the "main dishes," because on a day-to-day basis, just banchan and rice is what most people eat.

Honestly, I really can't say for 100% why they're giving you funny looks because it could be one of many things.

1. As mentioned above, they might not be happy that you're wolfing down on the free stuff. I've noticed service at Korean restaurants stateside to be a bit stingier, especially with banchan. And even if you're not asking for more than what they give you the cost of ingredients for Korean cuisine in the States is pretty expensive and in some cases kind of rare.

2. Also, it might be the way you're eating it/excitement. Maybe you look a little too amazed/entertained by all the variety of banchan you get. Nothing wrong with it, but yea, I have to agree, to them it probably looks funny to see someone so excited by it. Also, are you just wolfing it down without rice? I had friends who heard the banchan=side dishes/appetizers comparison and would just wolf down the banchan separately from the rice as they came out. I can see how that would make them look at you weird because you're technically eating it "wrong." They might be clucking their tongues thing "Poor thing eating all that banchan. It must be ridiculously salty without any rice." And yes, I've heard someone say this before in response to riceless banchcan eating by a non-Korean.

3. Sometimes the reaction to a non-Koreans enjoying Korean food is more of bemusement than being joyful. Because of a lot of "Kimchi smells like ass," "Whoa, that is way too much garlic," "Why is that so red?" and "you eat pickled WHAT?" type reactions, a lot of Koreans think there isn't much of an appeal for Korean foods. I've heard plenty of "You might not like this, it's very spicy" and general steering away from a lot of the more traditional, "scary" foods and more towards safe foreigner seal of approval safe foods like bulgogi, bibimbab (even then, you have to patiently explain everything in the bowl is mixed together violently, you don't pick daintily at each item on top of the rice), and maybe jabchae noodles. So when they do see someone who is not Korean dig into Korean food with gusto, they look on more with a bit of amused worry until they are ABSOLUTELY sure you really like Korean food, then they're happy and think it's cute. It's not unheard of to get prodded with repeated, "Really, you like Korean food? Really? Really? (laugh of amusement/disbelief inserted here)" even as you're eating the food.
posted by kkokkodalk at 10:47 AM on November 18, 2008

I am saying this assuming you are white (or not easily mistaken for Asian at least). They probably think its a little "funny" in a cute way that you are going straight for the stuff that many Americans generally pass over.

Not to hijack a question, but I've gotten this multiple times, in such an overt fashion that it seems kind of ridiculous. A couple of the Vietnamese places I've been at have straight tried to deter me from getting the cold pork rolls (looks sort of like the pic here), insisting that I wouldn't like it and I should try the spring rolls instead. I generally counter that I'm pretty sure I'd like the thing I actually ordered, I've had it before, etc etc. Am I just too white for this damn dish or something?
posted by FatherDagon at 10:47 AM on November 18, 2008

FatherDragon - I have to admit that when I try to introduce people I like to food I grew up with and I get a "wtf" or facial expression of "ew I won't even put that on my plate and consider it actual food" my feelings get hurt. I actually had one girl make us go to Friendly's after dim sum so she could get mozzarella sticks because she "was starving".

I know these restaurants are a business and my situation is different, but maybe their grandma is in the kitchen making the food and she has gotten sad before because other people have ordered the cold pork rolls and she seems them come back to the kitchen spit out or something. Nobody wants sad grandma.
posted by spec80 at 11:23 AM on November 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

FatherDagon, I mean. Not Dragon. Sorry!
posted by spec80 at 11:23 AM on November 18, 2008

I'm with ambrosia's hubs on being happy finally to know what they are called, and the Wikipedia list is a godsend. It was probably all the little dishes that got me hooked on Korean food in the first place - at the (apparently now closed) Sam Mee Restaurant in Chicago. Sniff.

I had the saw-God experience of the little dishes at a place near the old palace in Seoul. I think there were about 75 dishes on the table, and there was only one I couldn't come to grips with - a small pickled crab that was crunchier than it had a right to be.

Damn - now I'm hungry, and there are two Korean places around the corner. No. Must exercise restraint.
posted by sagwalla at 11:46 AM on November 18, 2008

I can see why it's funny/amusing/weird for someone to get excited over banchan, since they're really are just little condiment-style dishes. It's like getting excited over pepper and salt. Don't worry about it. At least you love the stuff (and not hoarding it, I suppose).
posted by curagea at 12:50 PM on November 18, 2008

Best answer: The kind women cluck and shake their heads-- I just wondered what flavor of weird I was presenting.

I think I know the place that you are referring to (Evans at Sheridan?), as there aren't many choices where we live.

I've eaten Korean in many cities across the country, and I'd have to say that those particular women at seem to cluck and shake their heads at most non-Koreans in the joint. More so there than other, bigger cities that support a larger Korean population and that have more non-Koreans eating at their shops. I've definitely gotten the "outsider" feeling there more than once, so it might not be about the banchan at all. Just a thought.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 1:33 PM on November 18, 2008

Best answer: There's a restaurant here in South San Francisco that has an all-you-can-eat self-service banchan bar and it's quite popular so don't think you're the only one.
posted by junesix at 11:44 PM on November 18, 2008

Living in South Korea may give me a slightly different perspective than eating Korean food in the USA. As an English teacher living in Korea, I'm looked at funny wherever I go. Most Koreans seem to stare at anything or anybody that doesn't fit their particular view of the world. Remember that most ajummas or agosshi (older married women and men, respectively) are still somewhat suspicious of foreigners thanks to the Korean war. If they're cooking at the Korean restaurant and they fit this age description, bear that in mind.

In my view, the banchan are the way to feel more filled from your meal. Here in Korea, the portions of the 'main meal' (usually galbi or other meat cooked at the table) are just right for the Korean stomach... and a little small for mine. Let the Koreans gawk and stare - and keep on eating. When it's time to pay the bill they won't be saying anything to you. Tip well if you like, but remember that the banchan is considered part of the meal you paid for. I might tip a little extra for every side dish you asked them to bring out - while demonstrating that you're also eating from the main dish as well.
posted by chrisinseoul at 3:56 AM on November 19, 2008

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