10 Flavor-Packed, Easy Korean Side Dishes
While Korean culinary highlights include what we call the original KFC (Korean Fried Chicken), as well as some truly outrageous snack foods, the day-to-day diet of most Koreans is much more diversely vegetable focused — which might account for why South Korea is projected to be the first country to surpass a 90 year old average life expectancy. While there are admittedly several factors, one of the biggest is food, and it’s no wonder: every meal contains a variety of banchan.
When I first moved to the United States from South Korea, I really missed the variety of vegetables that usually came in banchan form. If you’ve never had banchan, think of it like a tapas-portioned dish that acts similarly to condiments; they vary from hot (like mackerel and radish jorim, a braised dish) to cold (like the beloved staple, kimchi) and there’s usually at least three or four different banchan at every meal to offer fiber-rich vegetables, as well as fermented elements to aid in digestion.
Many of the banchans below, such as japchae and jeon, are a must in the Seollal celebration — and if you want to add some delicious new ways to add more vegetables into your diet, I definitely recommend making a few of my favorite banchans!
Radishes are included with at least one meal a day in Korea, and it’s no wonder, since they pack a powerhouse combo of fiber, potassium, iron, and Vitamins C, K, and a range of Bs. They may also have antidiabetic effects and help support a healthy pancreas. With a flavor and fermentation style similar to kimchi, but with a crunchier twist, kkakdugi is usually made with the earthier, sweeter Korean radish, but I’ve substituted the more accessible daikon with good results (just make sure to allow for an extra hour or so of disgorging, as daikon contains more water). Bonus: since there are natural sugars in radishes, they’ll feed the healthy fermentation for you, so no extra sugar is needed.
Cucumbers are incredibly hydrating, which is why we find them so refreshing — they’re 95% water — but a surprising benefit of this melon-family fruit is that they’ve been demonstrated to support our cardiovascular system with anti-inflammatory effects. Oi Muchim is readily available in many ways, but I like this version because it’s got a lighter hand with the gochagaru (Korean chili spice). I like to modify this for keto by subbing coconut aminos for soy sauce, and omit the sugar entirely, as the cucumber has such a lovely natural sweetness that’s enhanced by the other ingredients (but feel free to swap out for a sugar substitute!).
This banchan is such an effortless way to make use of the benefits of food combining. It contains sesame oil, which helps you get fat-soluble calcium, Vitamin D, and K out of spinach, so you can better support your bone density. Sigeumchi namul whips up faster than a salad, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you snack on this slightly nutty, crunchy, velvety dish by itself. And it’s so easy to make that you won’t even mind having to make more.
This dish definitely straddles the line between sweet and savory, so it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I think it’s delicious. A batch cooks in under 20 minutes and can be served warm right away, or cold anytime. This gamja jorim is made with maple syrup instead of sugar, which has a lower glycemic index, but you can also skip the sugary stuff entirely if you prefer a more savory profile. Make sure to follow the recipe author’s suggestion and leave the skins on to keep the fiber and vitamin C. While Gama Jorim is usually made with chilies, rest assured that leaving it out doesn’t make this dish any less authentic.
There’s a lot of versions of jeon (a Korean pancake-like fritter) that vary from kimchi to seafood or a very simple chive, but I like the flexibility of a Yachaejeon because I love any dish that allows me to use the vegetables I have on hand — just keep in mind that you can adjust for more water-packed veggies by disgorging (removing excess water with salt) and julienning thinner than normal (super easy with a mandoline). While this recipe includes a bonus for DIY Korean frying mix flour, you can substitute with a 2:1 ratio of flour to cornstarch; and for anyone on a keto or Whole30 diet, you can substitute with a 3:1 ratio of almond flour to psyllium husk — just ensure you whisk dry ingredients thoroughly.
Eggs are quite possibly one of my favorite foods, and their versatility knows no bounds. While gyeran mari traditionally contains carrots and scallions, you can use sheets of gim (nori/seaweed), mozzarella cheese, or even leftover roasted vegetables from last night’s dinner — try to keep the same proportions because eggs are truly the star of this dish. The possibilities for combinations are endless once you get the technique down because all you need is five minutes and a non-stick pan… and, well, eggs of course!
If you’re looking for more ways to sneak eggplant into your diet (with its demonstrated effects on lowering blood pressure, how could you not?), you should definitely give gaji namul a try. In this simple dish, eggplant is torn and gently steamed to release its high water content, allowing it to soak up a simple yet delicious marinade.
This dish has the delightful flexibility of being either a main dish or a banchan. It’s a favorite side dish of mine, especially during winter, if I’m doing a vegetable-focused main. While godeungeo jorim is typically made with fresh mackerel, I usually make this recipe with canned because it saves on both time and money, but doesn’t skimp on nutrition. Cooked mackerel yields around two-thirds of its weight once cooked, so I’ll substitute 18oz of canned mackerel and save myself 20 minutes of braising time.
Japchae is made with dangmyeonm, which are the Korean version of glass noodles that are made with sweet potato starch, a great gluten-free alternative to wheat noodles (and they’re almost half the calories). This banchan has a few more steps than the other recipes, but all of the different preparations are definitely worth it. While japchae is often made with beef, you can omit or replace it with a meat-free protein to keep it vegan. This dish is served warm, but takes seconds to heat back up — add a tablespoon of water to help rehydrate the noodles!
With probiotic health benefits similar to yogurt, kimchi has demonstrated health functionality ranging from cholesterol reduction to brain health promotion and anti-aging properties. If you’re someone who loves the kimchi flavors but has a hard time with spice, baek kimchi is a great alternative because it contains a fraction of the gochugaru spice, which gives baechu kimchi (spicy napa cabbage kimchi) its kick. The traditional variety includes ingredients that aren’t usually sold in American grocery stores, so if you don’t have an Asian market near you, you can replace parsley for the minari (a celery-like herb) and leave out the jujubes and shrimp paste (as well as the fish sauce if you want to keep it vegan) for a light, slightly sweet, and effervescent baek kimchi.