I have a very simple way of evaluating Korean restaurants: success is based on the banchan it serves. More often than not, banchan is dismissed as “those free side dishes that come with the meal,” and as a result, become tasteless, unrecognizable piles of vegetables or seafood doused in red pepper paste. In my opinion, banchan is the true taste index because it represents the chef’s ability to work with the fundamental ingredients of Korean cooking– garlic, red pepper, sesame oil, soy sauce, ginger, scallions– and to create variety despite these shared ingredients. In theory, if the chef gets the banchan right, the bigger dishes should deliver.
In the restaurant that is my parent’s house and through the chef that is my mother, I am reminded of this every time she cooks Korean food for me. My mom’s banchan is simple and fresh, and the main ingredient always comes through. She turns sesame oil, salt, scallions and red pepper flakes into magical fairy dust that transforms broccoli and eggplant into dishes that can make me forget about every other dish on the table (all of which, as you now know, do pass the taste test).