My favorite aspect of Korean food has always been the many side dishes that are served along with the main meal. The first time I had Korean food, I was worried we were going to have to pay for the extra food and was a little annoyed that we were even asked if we wanted it. James, always the logical, rational person in our relationship, said it was probably included in the meal because they wouldn’t just bring us food and expect us to pay for it. He likened it to free chips and salsa. Like Forest Gump’s momma, James always has a way of explaining things. I was still a little skeptical but ate whatever they gave us and shut up.
Aside from the actual food, I most enjoy trying to figure out the ingredients of each side dish. Usually it’s some kind of fermented vegetable but I always like it when they throw in something new like sliced omelet or a suped up tofu. These little dishes, or banchan, are probably what I was most interested in learning how to make. I’m always astonished by the quantity given, which apparently also signifies how fancy the meal is. The more banchan, the fancier the meal. I honestly would prefer a meal solely made out of banchan but it was nice to learn this in case I ever host the Korean royal family.
Kimchi is probably the best known banchan but I was introduced to so many (in my opinion) better banchans than kimchi. The squid from the last meal is a very popular banchan and I think it was a billion times better than any kimchi I’ve ever had. I was going to make some kimchi but I read that it’s better to let it sit and ferment for at least thirty days but I only had seven days. And honestly, we weren’t ever going to eat as much kimchi as I would have made.
After earmarking the recipes I wanted to make, I realized over half were banchans. When figuring out what to make on Thursday night, I got worried about not having a main dish until I read that japchae is also a stand alone meal. Problem solved! So while technically this entire meal is made up of banchan, it also isn’t.
I’ve had japchae before but I wanted to make it just to have an excuse to cook with sweet potato noodles because there’s something fun about saying you’re eating glass noodles. It required a lot of mushrooms and I actually couldn’t find the oyster mushrooms that the recipe called for but I had three other types of mushrooms so I think I was okay. It was kind of pain in the ass to make, in between boiling the noodles, chopping the billion mushrooms, and then trying not to spill everything when mixing all the ingredients together in my cast iron skillet, but it turned out well so there’s that. The girls really loved the noodles and mushrooms. We had gone to the park earlier in the day and found a bunch of wild mushrooms. The four year old was in awe of all the mushrooms so I think that had something to do with her willingness to eat them for dinner.
I loved how easy the gaji muchim (soy marinated eggplant) was to make. It literally took maybe ten minutes, including the five minutes it took to cook it in the microwave. I think this would make a great side dish for any kind of grilled meat meal, Korean or not. Saving this one for barbecue season next year!
I was not as pleased with the kognamul muchim (crunchy sesame bean sprouts) but I think that had nothing to do with the recipe itself and more with the state of my bean sprouts. I had planned on making this meal on Wednesday, after having bought the ingredients on Tuesday, but James and both girls weren’t feeling well on Wednesday so I didn’t cook that night. That meant the bean sprouts sat in the fridge another night and that gave them another night to get gross and soggy. Had they been fresh and crispy, I think it would have turned out a lot better. Instead they came out mushy and that mushiness really enhanced the oyster sauce, which resulted in a lump of fishiness. Barf.
The dubu jorim (soy braised tofu) was by far my favorite. The longest part of the prep was waiting for the tofu to air dry before frying it. I know you can dry tofu with a paper towel but it’s always been my experience that patting it dry and then letting it air dry for a few minutes results in a crispier tofu. I’ve fried a lot of tofu in my day and I’ve also gotten burned from oil popping out when the wet tofu hits the pan so I think I know what I’m talking about. I think I added a bit too much water to the sauce because it never caramelized, even after six minutes, but it just meant the tofu was a little less chewy. Even with the 1/2 inch knob of ginger, tablespoon of gochugaru, and teaspoon of Korean red chile pepper, it wasn’t incredibly spicy. The four year old even ate it and she hates spicy foods. This along with the japchae were just as delicious the next day and maybe even a little better.
So aside from the bean sprouts, everything was great. I probably won’t make japchae again because it was so time consuming and messy but that’s okay, I know where to find it. Everything else I will save for future meals. Especially the tofu because my fiery four year old ate it. She probably enjoyed the fact that she finally found a meal to match the spiciness of her personality.