Prior to a recent holiday in South Korea, I have to confess I hadn’t eaten much Korean food. But it wasn’t long into my two week stay before I realised that “Korean” was my new favourite way of eating.
Alongside a dedication to umami through soy, spice and fermentation, the thing I love most is ban chan. The concept involves having at least three small side dishes with every meal, including breakfast, and usually comprises a selection of pickles, salad, rice and soup.
Multiple sides appeals to my love of tapas, sharing meals, and a desire to taste everything. It also guarantees that every meal offers a mix of textures from crunchy to liquid, and a balance of sweet, sour, salty and fiery flavours.
There will always be kimchi, of course, but you may also enjoy spiced bean sprouts or choi sum, sweet daikon radish, or perhaps cubed mooli floating in light pickle juice. (That was a bit baffling.) Soup is not the heavy precursor of Western meals, but a small cup of thin broth which can be sweet, spicy or savoury. Salad could be finely sliced cabbage with a Marie Rose-type sauce; the most popular choice. Alongside the main dish, these complementary taste sensations always provide a well-rounded and satisfying feed, without leaving you snoozy: no bread, pasta or potatoes, thank you.
The best example we had of this sort of Korean dining was in a tiny place called “Awesome” in Gyeongju, a small historic town an hour from the south coast.
The only English sign read “Mother’s kitchen cooking,” and there were just two choices on the menu. This wasn’t a surprise: typically restaurants would do one food item in variety of ways – and do it really well. We weren’t sure what that food item was, but who cared! We’d chosen Awesome for the fact it was busy, and everyone else’s food looked great.
The one word the waitress could communicate was “spicy.” But in Korea that doesn’t mean streaming eyes and unbearable pain, eclipsing taste. It’s a tingle that doesn’t linger, coupled with deep savouriness. This is because spice often comes from gochujang, a fermented soy paste with red chilli flakes. So we went for it; one of each please.
(On a side note, another plus point of meals with many readymade dishes is that they come very quickly. It only takes a few moments to fry up the main dish and plate up the tray, and you’re off. Speedy, plentiful food. My idea of heaven.)
Travel companion Raymond enjoyed a bowl of fragrant soup, a spicy meat broth rich with thin slices of beef and cubes of soft tofu. Beef was perhaps the common theme, because my dish had some too; this time in smooth, sweet chilli sauce, placed on top of layered burdock leaves. The most striking component, the leaves were rough on the tongue but herbal on the palate, and perfect for creating delicious little beef parcels.
The sides were particularly good quality. The fiery kimchi was in thick slices with crunchy stems and withered tops. It was joined by a creamy mushroom and shrimp combination with a springy bite, chopped into small pieces. There was also some sort of thin roots, tangy with fermentation, and Korean favourite Spam, served in a sweet sauce. Lastly, a clear, soothing bean sprout soup rounded things out. It was almost flavourless, but somehow moreish.
Of course there was rice, ever dependable in its ability to absorb leftover sauce or relieve a palate reeling from too much spice. But I was also pleased with a small bowl of viscous, grainy pumpkin rice soup, and half a fresh peeled orange for dessert. This meal really had it all, carefully arranged in a multitude of pretty ceramic bowls.
To wash it all down I chose to try maekgolli, a homemade rice wine. It was not unpleasant, and certainly interesting; alternately milky and punchy, smooth and gritty. Being both sweet and potent, it wasn’t so much like wine as alcoholic milkshake. An enjoyable experience, but not one I would rush to repeat!
Back home after our Korean holiday, it was the ban chan I immediately missed. A quick trip to the Chinese supermarket stood me in good stead, but kimchi doesn’t quite suit all meals… Still, if you’re looking for a reduced calorie diet that doesn’t leave your stomach grumbling, you could do worse than matching your meals with many small dishes of fermented vegetables. It’s a healthy, satisfying way to eat, and I thoroughly recommend it.