Once served to King Kojong of the Joseon Dynasty, banchan has stood the test of time as a spread of food that continues to give dinner tables the royal treatment. By definition, banchan is an open-ended prompt: an assortment of small side dishes served with cooked rice.
During the many summers I visited South Korea, where I split my time between Seoul and Osan, I was able to taste all the variations based on region. How my maternal grandmother in Seoul prepared her banchan was different in comparison to how my paternal grandmother in Osan made hers - they got along just fine. And I didn’t need to travel far to pick up on differences in kimchi seasoning, even neighboring restaurants in one town can politely disagree.
This is to say that within the diaspora, there are no right or wrong answers when it comes to banchan, just a few loose rules - or “categorical underpinnings” - to be cognizant of. So long as it fits on a 3.5-inch saucer and makes practical sense to eat in between shovels of rice and grilled pork belly, anything can be banchan.
A few quick notes: the term “banchan” is used in reference to one dish or many of them combined. You’ll come to find at most Korean restaurants, banchan (plural) is complimentary with your meal. More often than not, banchan (singular or plural) will also be bottomless so don’t hesitate to ask for refills.
Here is a guide to the common categories banchan falls under and the Korean restaurants in NYC that do it especially well, from longtime classics to the more lavish and fusion picks.
Kimchi: There are over 100 ways to make kimchi or fermented produce seasoned with Korean gochugaru chili powder, salt, and other flavoring ingredients. A typical banchan spread will always have at least one type of kimchi. In many instances, cooks will use napa cabbage, daikon radish, cucumbers, and chives. But truly any firm vegetables or fruits - carrots, bok choy, pears, watermelons - are fair game.
Namul: Most vegetables in Korean food culture (except kimchi) will be cooked to some degree even if they are best served cold. Namul is a foundational example and is a method of cooking in which vegetables are blanched for a short period of time and rung out of their excess moisture before getting massaged with spices, sauce, and oil. The most commonly utilized sauces for namul rotate between soy sauce, gochujang, and doenjang (soybean paste), and the finishing oil it’s hit with towards the end tends to be toasted sesame oil.
Bokkeum: Side dishes stir-fried with a light amount of oil will obtain the word bokkeum as a last name. Gamja bokkeum is to stir-fried potatoes as nakji bokkeum is to spicy octopus stir fry. The former is a starchy side served at a few places below.
Jjim (or Chim): Jjim is an umbrella term for any meat or vegetable banchan that unleashes flavor by sitting in a long, steamy sauna or boiling bath of savory sauce or soup. Banchan that undergoes the jjim treatment could very much suit a three-month-old baby who hasn’t started teething: it’s smooth, custardy, and goes down easily without too much gnawing to be had.
Jorim: Jorim is a dish that’s been braised in sauce. It’s comparable to jjim, but with a noticeably thicker viscosity to where it borders on being a marinade.
Jeon: Both a crispy fried wheat flour pancake (think pajeon, scallion pancakes) and battered-then-fried cylinders of meat and vegetables are considered jeon, the final core component of the banchan universe.
Open 24/7 in the heart of Koreatown, Kunjip fuels workday lunch catch-ups, late-night cravings, and morning hangovers with stir-fry platters, grilled meats, and soups. Their banchan, consistent around the clock, is veggie-focused and prepared with a decidedly lighter hand. Their red potato salad with apple chunks and black raisins wears a light coverage of Kewpie mayo dressing. The napa cabbage kimchi is watered down and lightly spicy but not underwhelmingly so, something that can’t be said about Squid Game’s diluted English subtitles. Every table also receives a bubbling cauldron of gyeran jjim (steamed egg custard) - it’s big enough to share, although some might beg to differ. I overheard a woman at Kunjip try to argue her way into getting two bowls for her and her husband. Her exact words to the waiter were, “You forgot to give us one more.”
San Soo Kap San 2
San Soo Kap San could win a banchan competition for being extremely generous with the number of dishes they lay out on the table. The standout at this Flushing spot is their gorgeous tofu side: big fudgy pyramids of cold silken tofu ladled with soy chili sauce. Other selections include odeng bokkeum (stir-fried fish cakes), braised potatoes, dotorimuk (cold acorn jelly), and pickled daikon radish.
Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong
There are too many good reasons to go to Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong, but they’re all strung together by the molten pull of KHD’s complimentary cheesy corn. Alone, it serves as an excellent side to spoon up at any point you’re in need of a salty-sweet bite. Or you can dunk a piece of beef into the molten cheese hot tub, let the cheese cling on before you grab on, and proceed to have one of the best bites you’ll have all week. The menu at this Ktown standby is the perfect alliance between thick units of prime-quality meat and large battalions of banchan led by that perfect cheesy corn.
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Hahm Ji Bach
Elbow room is simply not a thing at Hahm Ji Bach, where the variety of banchan takes up every inch of the table. The spread is a thorough sampling of each core banchan category and many iterations apiece: You typically get two types of kimchi, blanched broccoli and a thick squeeze of gochujang, fried peanuts with dried anchovy, coleslaw, and potato salad. You even get a free order of crispy fried fish. And no matter how busy of a Saturday night it is at this Murray Hill restaurant in Queens, the servers consistently refill empty side dishes in a flash.
Side dishes are the main event at Atoboy, a laid-back spot in Midtown East with a banchan-esque five-course menu that changes based on seasonality. The trick here is to get a table with maybe one or two other people, order different things off the prix-fixe selection, and share it all. That way, you’ll each get a perfect nugget of fried zucchini smeared with pistachio cream and a sausage-stuffed squid ring, along with bigger forkfuls of buttery halibut in seaweed soup and beet-dusted radish nests over duck. With all the banchan-adjacent plates comes a fixed selection of two “traditional” banchan. Recently, they were a fine-diced muu radish kimchi and a bokkeum of blistered shishitos piled atop boiled fingerling potatoes doused in thick soy sauce caramel. Make sure one of your choices for the last course is the blueberry semifreddo. A creamy white sesame slice smothered in violet berry syrup, it looks strikingly similar to spicy cold silken tofu and makes a very strong case for dessert banchan.
Modeled after the many banchan vendors in South Korea, Woorijip is a shop dedicated to selling - you guessed it - banchan. Everything is packaged to be easily transported back to your apartment, which is helpful whether you’re due back in 20 minutes for another afternoon meeting or you have a friend coming over soon for dinner and Hospital Playlist. Should you have more free time, there’s a small cafeteria area to sit at, where you can scarf down your food and scroll through emails. For about $4 each, you can fill up on substantial tubs of rolled eggs, simmered lotus root, and spicy smashed cucumber. And make sure to pick up some white fish jeon and spicy pan-fried anchovies too - the seafood banchan here are excellent.
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If you’re a longtime Gowanus resident, you may already know Insa for double-serving as part barbecue restaurant, part karaoke bar. But what you may not know is that the $5 banchan medley stuns. Potato salad, delicata squash, napa cabbage kimchi, mung bean jelly, and seaweed salad make up the five-member boy band called Banchan Sonyeondan (BCS for short). Much like the mega boy band with a similar name, this side dish set dominates with unique personalities that magically meld together in tasteful unity. Get a set to eat with the pajeon (chive pancakes) or Insa fried chicken.
Gopchang Story is situated so far on the eastern corner of Koreatown that it actually lives on Fifth Avenue. The meathouse specializes in a type of barbecue called gopchang gui, a hot pot platter of grilled beef intestines, and they serve some of the most luscious cuts of meat you really won’t find elsewhere in the city. Here, the two main banchan are the oblong platter of garlic chives kimchi and a ramekin of soy sauce pickled onions and garlic cloves. They’re incredibly light, bright, and served cold - an excellent pop of contrast to gopchang’s fattiness.
For about three years, Janchi Myeonga has been serving as a neighborhood banchan shop in large part catering to the Korean community in Murray Hill, Queens. Come here to take your pick from a treasure trove of classics - kimchi, jeon, jorim, namul, and jjim plus a few rarer additions. In a large glass fridge with a huge selection of kimchi and pickle varietals, the one specialty you need to snag is the salad container’s worth of gul bossam kimchi (oyster kimchi and pine nuts). It’s super ripe and strikes an impeccable balance of funky spice and fishy umami. But the rarest banchan among them is the yangnyum gaejang (raw spicy marinated crabs) - a generous container filled to the brim with succulent tails will only cost you $10.