Monday, December 14, 2009

반찬- Side dishes.

It's all about presentation.
A simple Korean meal
I should mention that rice is like the daddy mac and kimchi is the mac daddy (that reference just happened. you heard it here first). Where one is the other is, too. They are expected at all main dishes (save noodle-based dishes like 짜장면 or 비빕국수). I mentioned rice before but I'm afraid that I missed a crucial cultural point. Rice is just about the only "side dish" that really should be finished. It's not overtly rude to leave some rice in one's bowl, but make it a point to finish your meal off by making that rice bowl empty. If you find yourself getting full fast, put the brakes on the 잡채 and finish your rice.

If you're feeling particularly hungry or if your eyes perk up at the sight of your favorite side dish, dig in. All good servers will notice that you favor a particular side dish and will usually promptly replenish it when it becomes empty. Such service is typical (and absolutely awesome). Don't feel like a big'un just because you dig on 두부 - it's good for you - eat up.

Speaking of favorites, here's a decent list of side dishes that should serve as a starting place for everyone to point and say oh! that's what that is called! Also, A great breakdown of a decent-sized table full of 반찬 can be found over at FatManSeoul's neck of the woods.

Here's the thing. Every culture has something taboo about food. In America, slurping food is generally considered to be rude while it's a common sound at a Korean table. In the same vein, eating all the food on the table is generally considered to be polite in America; while this is mostly true in Korea, separate rules exist for the side dishes. Most generally "Take all that you want but eat all that you take" doesn't apply in Korea.

For example, when one orders a main dish at a Korean restaurant, you will see several of these happy little white dishes ducktailing along for the ride. Count on at least one of them to be 김치 in some form - be it 오이김치 (Cucumber), 깍두기 (Radish), or just good ole 김치(Happiness). I also seem to notice that almost all side dishes are vegetable-based although it's fair to point out that there are a number that contain fish. It's not exactly because the restaurant wants to accommodate vegetarians but more like that at this point it's expected. Side dishes complement the main meal by offsetting a high meat content or to help cleanse the palette in between bites. In my case, I like side dishes simply because it gives me variety at every meal.
Speaking of variety, each and every restaurant, home, and ideal spouse has a mini-menu of side dishes that are enough to get people talking. Some restaurants are known for having the best 전 while another might make their own in-house 두부. Also, even if you visit the same little place everyday, you might not get the same side dishes. The photo above was taken at the best little 분식집 near 이대 and they pretty much gave me something different everyday. I repaid them by grinning like an idiot and making questionable noises whilst eating. You're welcome.

So, when it all comes down to it, these side dishes are essential, infinitely replenished, vary in quantity, free, and are downright beautiful in terms of art. Think about it: the contrast, the texture, the luster - the freakin kimchiness of it all - it just works. That's all. So, enjoy your main dish, eat some kimchi, finish your rice, and rinse it down with your thimble of 보리차 at the end. Pay and repeat a few hours later.

So, what are your favorite side dishes?