Thursday, September 28, 2017

Rice and Banchan - a Love Affair

It's been a while, hasn't it? One of the reasons why posting has been slow on AAK! was because TK was in Seoul last month for work. While I was there, I got to try some of the restaurants in Seoul that just earned their stars from the Michelin Guide, which got me thinking about the essence of Korean food. Below, I'll share with you my experience at those restaurants and my thoughts. This time, I tried my hand at a magazine-style writing.


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I.   At a Michelin Three-Star Restaurant

What is Korean food? I was at Gaon, a fine dining restaurant in the affluent Sinsa-dong district in Seoul, when I faced this question. Specifically, the question was posed as a piece of fish. The fish, the fourth course served in Gaon’s prix-fixe menu, was a roasted piece of geumtae from the southern island of Jeju. The fish is also known as blackthroat seaperch, or as nodoguro in Japan. Like all the dishes before it, this piece of geumtae was fantastic. The crispy fried skin was like a golden piece of toast; underneath was the fatty meat that retained its shape and texture for a second in the mouth before melting away. “Tastes like a Michelin star,” my dinner companion joked. Yet something about the fish—a Korean fish, served at a Korean restaurant—bothered me.

Roasted geumtae from Gaon
(Source: myself)

I had high hopes for Gaon. The restaurant is run by KwangJuYo company, a guardian of various Korean traditions. KwangJuYo began in 1963 as a pottery company, reviving the fine chinaware that used to be produced for the Joseon Dynasty kings. KwangJuYo is also known for their brand of traditional soju called Hwayo, which puts to shame the cheap, aspartame-laced imposters in green bottles. Gaon is KwangJuYo’s flagship restaurant. When the Michelin Guide came to Seoul for the first time in April 2017, the French reviewers awarded Gaon with three stars, the guide’s highest distinction. Gaon was one of only two restaurants in Seoul that earned three Michelin stars.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.




Gaon’s service and atmosphere were impeccable. The restaurant offered a Hwayo pairing with the food, which my dinner companion and I gladly chose over the wine pairing. The KwangJuYo porcelain graced both the wall and the table, as the food was served on the in-house dinnerware. The prix-fixe course began with five types of amuse-bouche, all made with traditional Korean ingredients like minari (water parsley,) uni wrapped in crispy seaweed, beef tartare flavored with sesame oil. After a soothing round of corn porridge, a cold crab meat salad came, followed by the most perfectly cooked bit of roasted abalone. Then came the fish, delicious and nagging. In fact, the nagging feeling had been with me since the crab meat salad. But what could it be? This was a gorgeous dish. It was so good, that it could appear in any fine New York restaurant and earn rave reviews …

Eureka. The thought of the land distant from Seoul made me realize what has been bothering me: this is the first time in my life, made up of 17 years in Korea and 20 years in the United States, in which I am eating a Korean meal and ate a cooked fish without rice. With soju-fueled indignation, I blurted out: “This fish is banchan. Where is the rice?”

II.   Banchan, and the Essence of the Korean Style of Eating

If you ever visited a Korean restaurant, even just once, you have seen banchan. Before you receive what you ordered—sometimes, before you order anything at all—an array of dishes come in small plates. One of them, without fail, is kimchi. Others can be meat, fish or vegetables. They can be raw, cooked, tossed, pickled, braised, fermented. Those are banchan: literally, “companion to rice.”

Eating food with carbohydrates is hardly unique to Koreans. Nor is eating food with rice, as other rice-growing cultures also center their cuisine around rice. But none of those cultures created a cuisine quite like Korea’s, which obsesses over building a constellation of small dishes to orbit around the rice. To be sure, not all Korean dishes come with numerous banchan. Dishes like gukbap (국밥, or rice-in-soup,) noodles, or bibimbap usually come with the maximum of three or so side dishes. But traditionally, Koreans have considered those banchan-less dishes to be the “lower” food that you would eat when you are out-and-about. Bibimbap, for example, originated as a dish for peasants on the field, who would mix in all the banchan into a large bowl with rice and sauce to eat quickly during their mid-day break. Gukbap and noodles were usually served at guest houses for travelers who needed to eat quickly and continue their journey.

A proper Korean meal is always with a bowl of rice, a bowl of soup, and banchan. Lots and lots of banchan. The greater the number and variety, the better. Koreans judge a restaurant by the number and quality of banchan. Knowing this, many restaurants in Korea have a dedicated kitchen position called chanmo—the “mother of banchan.” In Korea, this desire for ever more banchan has led to inefficiency and waste. Breathless reports of unscrupulous restaurants re-using uneaten banchan are a staple of Seoul’s local news. Observing the public hygiene regulations meant an enormous amount of food waste. To introduce efficiency, the Korean government in 1982 attempted to install jumun sikdanje [주문식단제], the “a la carte” system that required restaurant customers to specifically order each banchan. The attempt was short-lived, however—Koreans simply would not countenance the idea that they might pay for banchan separately.

With rice and banchan, a Korean table forms a system. The rice is the center of gravity, to which everything eventually returns. Banchan revolves around rice, as a planet would around a star. This juxtaposition of rice and banchan makes eating Korean food take on a unique rhythm. You alternate bites, between rice and banchan. One spoonful of rice, followed by a piece of kimchi. One spoonful of rice, one bit of braised fish cake. One spoonful of rice, one bit of tossed bean sprouts. Rice, banchan. Rice, banchan. This unique rhythm, in turn, creates a unique flavor profile. It is impossible to eat banchan on its own, for the flavor of banchan is always excessive. Standing alone, banchan is always too salty, too spicy, too fishy, too hot in temperature. Nor can you eat rice on its own. A bowl of rice is not like the bread that accompanies a Western meal. A piece of bread is a self-contained dish with salt and butter that can be eaten on its own. A bowl of rice is not a dish; it is a single ingredient, steamed. The ever-so-slightly sweet flavor of steamed rice is not enough to carry you through the entire bowl.

Consider kimchi, the ultimate banchan. Koreans are so inseparable from kimchi that Dr. Lee So-yeon, the first Korean in space, took a can of space kimchi with her. Yet the most common type of kimchi, made with salted Napa cabbage seasoned with fish sauce, garlic and chili powder, cannot possibly be eaten alone. Every aspect of kimchi’s flavor profile—salt, brine, heat, acidity—is far too much. Eating kimchi makes your mouth water, crying for rice. The relief comes with a spoonful of steamed rice, as the subtle sweetness of rice meets the lingering flavor of kimchi in your mouth. But the momentary bliss on the tongue barely lasts a second. The sensation quickly gives way to blandness, which calls out for other banchan. Then rice, then banchan. Rice, banchan. The flavors spiral up, the eating accelerates, until your rice bowl is empty, all the small dishes are empty, and you’re so full you can barely move.

Dr. Lee So-yeon at the International Space Station, eating the first Korean meal in space in April 2008.
The space kimchi is in the can that looks like a tuna can.
(source)

This upward spiral of flavors, created through an alternation between rice and banchan, is the stylistic essence of Korean cuisine. David Chang articulated this essence well, although Chang’s understanding Korean food can be shallow. (Not long ago, Chang exclaimed: “I had no idea there were such endless varieties in namul,” referring to edible vegetables, one of the most basic components of Korean food. Imagine an Italian chef marveling at the varieties of cheese.) In what he calls the “unified theory of deliciousness,” Chang identified the mechanism through which Korean food works, although he was not limiting himself to Korean food: “Normally we think of a balanced dish as being neither too salty nor undersalted. I think that’s wrong. When a dish is perfectly seasoned, it will taste simultaneously like it has too much salt and too little salt. It is fully committed to being both at the same time. . . . [The paradox] nags at you, and it keeps you in the moment, thinking about what you’re tasting. And that’s what makes it delicious.”

That’s one way to put it. Another way to describe the relationship between rice and banchan is: love. Rice and banchan do not stand at arm’s length from each other, exchanging a polite handshake. Instead, they are engaged in an intercourse, a passionate embrace of flavors, where a deep exploration of one naturally and irresistibly leads to a desperate desire for the other. Chasing that desire and diving deep into the other, like magic, leads one back to self—a changed, better self that only exists in conjunction with the other. Rice and banchan love each other. It is inconceivable for them to be separated.

III.   Banchan in the 21st Century

Traditions change. The fads of diet hit Korea just as much as they hit any other part of the world, attempting to separate rice and banchan. First it was the low sodium diet, which led to the abomination that was low-sodium kimchi. Then it was the low carb diet, which urged Koreans to eat less rice, which in turn meant eating less banchan.

Haute cuisine, and in particular the course meal, is a new challenge to the tradition. The course meal—the service a la Russe—was itself a hijacking of the French tradition, as it was a Russian diplomat who first served a French meal in courses, breaking from the service a la Francaise in which all the dishes were presented on the table at the same time. Yet the course meal is the antithesis of rice and banchan, the service a la Coreenne. At Gaon, the grilled geumtae fish sans rice was not even the most tragic divorce. The deepest sorrow was the next course: kimchi, by itself. Gaon’s kimchi was beautiful, delicious, and technically incredible. Marinated and fermented in pear juice, the kimchi was neither salty nor spicy, yet retained all of its complex flavors in a way that was adjusted to the reduced sodium and heat level. And the kimchi came out as a standalone item in a course meal. It stood beautiful and impotent, its flavors no longer calling for rice. The kimchi was a Ken doll, handsome and without genitals.

The popularity of Korean food outside of Korea accelerates the decontextualization, the divorce of rice and banchan. Second generation Korean Americans don’t care that much about the inherent logic of rice and banchan; non-Koreans do even less. When choosing Korean food, the meat-loving Americans gravitate toward Korean barbecue, and the health-conscious ones go for bibimbap—neither of which requires a lot of banchan. (The cost-conscious Korean restaurants in the U.S. are all too happy to ditch banchan.) The higher end Korean restaurants in New York have dispensed with banchan altogether. At Jungsik, the fanciest Korean restaurant in New York, “banchan” refers to amuse-bouche. (At our recent visit, my dinner companion joked: “if they are calling this ‘banchan,’ shouldn’t I be able to get an infinite refill of this?”) At Hooni Kim’s Danji and Hanjan, banchan is categorized as an appetizer, which means—horrors—they charge for the banchan. At Atoboy, the latest sensation of Korean food in New York, the entire menu is banchan served like tapas, in which rice is optional.

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Unfulfilled at Gaon, I set out for my next destination in Seoul. I returned to Sinsa-dong for a meal at Kwonsooksoo, a Michelin 2-star restaurant. Head chef Kwon Woo-joong is considered a rising young chef of Korean cuisine, known for a thoughtful approach as he attempted to translate Korea’s tradition into the modern era. You can see Kwon means business about the Korean tradition just as soon as you sit down at the table. On top of the regular table, there is a miniature, personal-sized table that replicates the traditional, single-serving Korean table.

Table setting at Kwonsooksoo
(Source: myself)

The very first course at Kwonsooksoo—a juansang—nearly made me jump with joy. On a juansang, a glass of wine stands in for a bowl of rice, surrounded by anju, a sub-category of banchan intended to accompany alcohol. On Kwonsooksoo’s version of juansang, a glass of rice wine occupied the center, appearing with a potato crisp with dots of gochujang, half-dried persimmon stuffed with cream cheese, pressed pork gelatin, pine nut porridge, beef jerky and a cracker made of crispy seaweed. Here it was, the exact thing that I was looking for: banchan interacting with rice, or at least a rice derivative.

Juansang at Kwonsooksoo. Possibly the most striking Korean table I've ever seen.
(Source: myself)

The following courses were standalone dishes (sea urchin corn soup, incredibly delicious dandelion noodles and pan-friend cabbage pancakes,) all of which were types of food that are not usually eaten with rice. I am giddy when I arrive at the main course—a seasonal bansang, the “rice table.” Many Korean restaurants fail to make rice properly, not giving due care to the meal’s center of gravity. Not so at Kwonsooksoo. Earlier in the course, my companions and I each received an individualized rice pot with a small stove underneath, cooking the rice as we moved through the other courses. The smell of rice being steamed drove up the anticipation. Finally, my table set arrived: a bowl of chilled cucumber soup, and six small plates of banchan: scallion kimchi, beef braised in soy sauce, spicy fermented skate, tossed zucchini, crispy piece of seaweed with braised mushrooms, and a pickled pepper. Rice, soup, banchan; yes, this was a proper Korean meal. I am ready to play the host for the lovefest. I want this rice to call for banchan, and the banchan call back to rice.

The waiter opened the rice pot. “Huh,” I muttered, taken aback. Inside the pot, there were three small, half-dried fish, cooked on top of the steamed rice. The waiter then hashed the rice, breaking up the fish and mixing it into the rice, then served it on a bowl. I began eating the fish-rice with banchan. The interplay was still there. The fish was lightly salted, but not enough for the fish-rice to be a standalone dish. The slight grease and brine from the fish called for banchan in a way that was different from a simple bowl of rice would. Scallion kimchi’s tartness responded well, and so did salty savoriness of braised mushroom.

Seasonal bansang with fish-rice from Kwonsooksoo
(Source: myself)

The love was still there, but like Kwonsooksoo itself, it was the modern kind. There was just a little more distance between the rice and the banchan, like casual lovers who return to their own lives after a brief tryst. Which is all fine and good. It just made one a bit nostalgic about the wild, unrestrained embrace of flavors that used to be.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com

8 comments:

  1. Traveling through Korea I had so many tasty side dishes. I found it odd that my mother who is allgergic to selfish, was able to eat kimchi.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Would love to hear your thoughts about this latest article from Serious Eats about soju.

    http://www.seriouseats.com/2017/10/what-is-traditional-soju-korea-tokki-brandon-hill.html

    ReplyDelete
  3. woa!!! i'm blown away by your analysis - you are exactly right- the procession of courses style is distinctly western & korean cuisine can't & shouldn't be jammed into that structure. also, as a korean, i find myself much preferring getting the lay of the land before i start a meal & having less patience for food as theatre - although that's just me being cranky as i get older. anyway - this is a great post, ...
    diving into the rest of this new found blog..

    ReplyDelete
  4. "If you ever visited a Korean restaurant, even just once, you have seen banchan."

    Not in Japan. Twenty years ago, I remember having to pay 400 yen (more than $4) just for a small dish of baechu kimchi. Out of the five or six countries in which I've eaten at a Korean restaurant, Japan is the only one that charged for banchan.

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  5. You cannot even order a "공기밥" (1000원 in any restaurant) at Gaon?
    A Korean restaurant not for Koreans ^^

    ReplyDelete
  6. This is a masterpiece article. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  7. This makes me sad. I only recently discovered Korean cuisine (I live in Canada) and LOVE the meal style and the flavours and foods. I make different banchan throughout the week (they're so fast and easy) and a big pot of rice and rotate the banchan as I run out, eating a couple with some rice for most of my meals (sometimes just one banchan with rice as a meal because I am just a Westerner, but still!). Or kimchi pancakes. Or jjajangmyeon. Or... gah. Noooo, c'mon West, stop RUINING EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE.

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  8. This blog is awesome and very informative keep Sharing this type of blog.

    ทางบ้าน

    ReplyDelete

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