“Hey, where do you want to go for lunch?”
“I don’t know, I think I’m feeling Korean food right now.”
“Yeah, me too. Do you know what you want?”
“Um, I mean I could do a jjigae, I could do a bap dish, I could do galbi, or shabu shabu.”
“Right, me too. How about…”
“Honestly, I’m just in it for the banchan. You know me, as long as the sides are plentiful or self-service, I’m happy.”
That’s about what it’s like figuring out where to eat with me. I offer no help simply because I’m in it for the side dishes. Banchan – or side dishes – are really what make a meal for me. Sure I like the variations of rice dishes and the endlessly savory deep soups that taste like health, Earth, and delicacy all at once, but what I love is dipping my chopsticks into little side dish bowls, tasting the odang, variations of kimchi, the radish, bean sprouts, some root covered in delicious sauce, or the rare but delicious lotus root.
Today, slow Sunday, after running around doing errands in the morning (which included buying those apples off the back of a truck) I met up with a friend for lunch, catch-up conversation, and a stroll around a few neighborhoods in search of the perfect Halloween outfit. He greeted me with “I’m hungry, and want food. Not just food but food.”
It took about five minutes to go through the options of American food, barbeque, pizza, Korean, before I came to the conclusion I always do: “I’m just in it for the banchan.”
“Well there’s a dubu house down here that I haven’t been to in a while, so why not there. I can get jungguk and lots of sondubu jjigae.” “Sounds perfect.” (Not only did the thought of sundobu jjigae sound good, but the fact that I’m starting to know what foods are what was thrilling.)
This place, located in the basement (as many places are), was quaint and packed with people. It was rich with smells of boiling soup, frying whole fish, and saucy meats.
After a quick decision about what we wanted to eat for lunch, the waiter brought out four things of banchan – which, mind you, is endless. Normally my table ends up getting about three rounds of side dishes (mainly because of me). The first round I treat as an appetizer, just some flavors to wake up my taste buds. Then comes the main dish – which is really just the entrance fee to side-dish town. Yes, it’s good, and I’ll always devour whatever is put in front of me, but the side dishes!
About half way through the meal – which today consisted of two jjigaes (a soup brought out in a dark earthen-ware pot, still boiling, in which you crack an egg and wait for it to cook) and a saucy meat dish – my friend yells out “cho-gi-yo” (or, come over here please), and off to round two of side dishes. This I think is normal – one refill that is.
It’s the last refill that seems to be a little strange to the waiters. So, only in good company, a jam-packed restaurant, or a self-service bar, will I get that third and last round of side dishes.
So what exactly are they? Well there’s normally the standard kimchi. It can come in many different varieties, be those with cabbage (the traditional), radish, bean sprouts, or sometimes a dark green vegetable. Then there’s the odang. Odang is best equated as being a fish sausage, cut really thin and marinated in some combination of sesame oil and soy sauce. It sounds pretty off-putting, but the flavor is sweet, savory, some times spicy, chewy, and so addictive. Some times the side dish even includes a whole fried fish. Today, the fish came as a side dish. Do I think we could have gotten another fish? No. Was it worth it to devour the fried small fish before the meal really arrived? Yup yup.
We only ended up doing two rounds of banchan today. I would have hit up the third but I had to save room for a new treat I hadn’t tried yet. Along with the four or five dishes brought out, the two fish, the two soups, and some saucy meat came another dark earthen-ware bowl with a top it. I popped the top off to find rice (normally served warm in a small metal bowl).
“Take the spoon, get the rice out, pour some water in there, and cover it back up.”
Not even questioning what I was doing, I completed the orders. After finishing a quick maneuver, I had to know, “What is it?” “It’s kind of like dessert, cooking over the course of the meal.” “Rice water?” “Scortched rice water. Not sweet, but a nice meal ender.” “Did we order it?” “Nope, comes with the meal.”
If it’s a side dish, I’m game.