Banchan - a bit on the side

Esther Han
Spoilt for choice: Banchan are side dishes served at a Korean meal.
Spoilt for choice: Banchan are side dishes served at a Korean meal. Photo: Edwina Pickles

One of the best features of Korean dining is the colourful spectacle of side dishes laid out at every main meal.

That clump of wilted greens is parboiled spinach seasoned with oil, garlic and soy sauce. The pile of luminous orange cubes would be the spicy, pickled radish. And the shredded beef? That's jang jorim, a dish of meat simmered in soy broth.

These are three of the most popular sides served gratis at Korean restaurants. Waiters usually dish out three to nine small sides, but if you get more, count yourself lucky.

''Banchan is an extremely important part of the eating experience,'' says Korean chef and caterer Heather Jeong. ''They provide flavour, harmony and variety. There's a focus on balancing salty, sweet, sour, spicy, bitter and unami flavours.''

Whatever the mix, kimchi is the constant. While Chinese cabbage kimchi is flagged as the national dish, it's just one of 160 variations. Other recipes use vegetables such as radish, cucumbers and scallion.

''Korea has a very harsh climate. We have harsh winters, cold Siberian wind, nothing grows, and in summer it's really humid,'' says Jeong, also a Korean cooking teacher at the Korean Cultural Office.

''There was no refrigeration back then, so a lot of foods were made to last through fermentation, salting or drying techniques. Side dishes were born out of these harsh conditions.''

Banchan has slowly become Westernised, with bowls of potato mash or pasta salad often accompanying the old favourites.

If you're after a restaurant that offers many sides, start with Eunhasu in Strathfield. The no-frills eatery offers hanjeongsik ($50 for two people), a dining style inspired by royal court banquets typically boasting a vast array of sides.

Jonga Jip (87 Rowe Street, Eastwood), a barbecue joint with youthful energy, is also gaining a reputation for its tasty sides that usually number more than 10.

While banchan is free and can be replenished at any time, Ms Jeong says customers should keep refill requests to a minimum.

''Keep in mind not to take advantage of the generosity of the restaurant. They do have to make some money.''