.Cho Sun Ok ..
Wed., March 22, 2017..
Korean side dishes such as cabbage kimchi or seasoned beansprouts are communal,
and are supposed to be eaten throughout the meal.
This is part of a weekly series in which reporter Aparita Bhandari explores how to eat
the different cuisines that make up Toronto’s diverse culinary landscape.
I’ll admit it. Until I embarked on this series, I was certain that I was making a fool of
myself at the Korean restaurants in my neighbourhood. I live in North York, unofficially
known as a Koreatown North, in relation to the original Koreatown in the Bloor and
Christie neighbourhood. A mixture of my inability to speak the language and the
busy nature of the authentic Korean restaurants that I occasionally dined at likely
resulted in many faux pas on my part. But my yen for a steaming bowl of jiggae (stew)
on a cold Toronto day, and bibimbap (mixed rice) pretty much any day, kept me coming
back for more.
My biggest mystery? What do you do with all those small dishes placed on the table
before the meal arrived? Are they appetizers? Or condiments?
Despite a rumbling stomach, I’d wait until the heavy stone pot containing my order of
dolsot bibimbap had arrived. Dying to dig in, I’d eye the crisp radish slivers flecked with
red pepper, pickled bean sprouts and kimchi. In the end, I decided to eat them like
achaar or Indian pickle, mixing it into spoonfuls of the bimbimbap.
“We get that question all the time,” says Sean Park, manager at Cho Sun Ok (pronounced oak),
a Thornhill restaurant and popular destination for many Koreans living in the neighbourhood,
who agreed to guide me through a meal.
Sean Park, manager at Cho Sun Ok Korean restaurant, teaches Aparita Bhandari how
to eat banchan. (Carlos Osorio / Toronto Star) | Order this photo
Korean philosophy dictates that food and medicine come from the same root. Korean
food consists of many vegetarian, meat and fish dishes, which are accompanied by
kimchi and other fermented condiments such as gochujang (Korean chili paste),
ganjang (soy sauce) and doenjang (soybean paste), according to a Korean cuisine
booklet published by the Korean Tourism Organization.
I was handed the booklet on my first visit to Cho Sun Ok. Park further explained that
the side dishes are called banchan (pronounced bahn-chahn): “You’re supposed to
eat them through the meal.”
So when you are eating jiggae or stew, for example, you alternate between the soup
and the filling-but-bland rice. The banchan provide little hits of flavour in between.
Banchan is communal, so everyone dips their chopsticks into their favourites — whether
it’s the baechu kimchi (cabbage kimchi) or kongnamul muchim (seasoned beansprouts),
Park says. Anyone can go first, although deference towards your elders is part of Korean
culture, he adds.
The rest is up to you. “There are no rules to eating banchan,” he says, alternating between
kkakdugi (diced radish kimchi), ohdeng (fish cakes), doobu jorim (tofu and jalapeno) and
galbi tang (beef rib soup). “Pick and choose as you like.”
My preference is to alternate between the spicy, sweet and hits of salt, in order to tease
my palate. But if you favour one banchan more, feel free to indulge your fancy. The one
thing Park would like everyone to know, however: banchan is not free — it is a part of your
meal. However, he shrugs, they humour the occasional request for a refill.
The number of banchan offered vary from restaurant to restaurant. There are literally
hundreds of different types of banchan. The options typically depend on regional variety
of vegetables, or what’s in season. In fact, some aficionados think restaurants should be
rated according to the quality of their banchan and how often they are refilled. And the
fancier the banchan, the more expensive restaurant. However, tradition does mandate
that an odd number of dishes be served, since even numbers are considered unlucky
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