This summer, NPR is getting crafty in the kitchen. As part of Weekend Edition's Do Try This At Home series, top chefs are sharing their cleverest hacks and tips — taking expensive, exhausting or intimidating recipes and tweaking them to work in any home kitchen.
This week: We go to Seoul, South Korea, to make banchan — those endless small plates of pickles and veggies that traditionally accompany rice or soup.
Korean-American Dan Gray has lived in Seoul for more than a decade. He says no meal is complete without banchan.
"With a Korean meal, you always have to have some side dishes," Gray says. "If you went to a Korean place and it didn't have any side dishes, you'd know that place is really poor. It's really bad. You shouldn't be there."
Gray is a restaurateur and food blogger, writing at Seoul Eats. He also loves to cook. He just doesn't have a lot of time for it. So he's constantly looking for clever hacks and shortcuts to make dinner time a little simpler.
The Hard Way
Banchan are part of what's popularizing Korean food around the globe. There are many different kinds of banchan, and they're typically served in smaller portions — banchan literally translates to "half-plate."
So the hard way requires preparing each different type of banchan individually — each in small quantities.
Gray can make three types of colorful banchan in a single pot, using the same water. And he can do it quickly — just 17 minutes, in the demonstration he gave us.
"This is really a hack," Gray says. "This is like the bachelor's way of making side dishes. Sorry, but your Korean mother will hate me making it this way."
One bunch (about 1 lb) of soybean sprouts, rinsed and drained
One bunch of spinach, washed
Three cloves of garlic, minced
Crushed sesame seeds
Red chili flakes (add as desired)
One large pot for boiling
One large pot filled with cold water and ice for shocking
Tongs or strainer to remove veggies from pot
- The order of operations is key, because you're using the same water to cook three different types of vegetables. We'll start from the lightest color — the white bean sprouts — and work up to the darkest, eggplant.
- Boil a big pot of salted water. Dump the bean sprouts into the water.
- While that's cooking, prepare an "ice bath" for the veggies in a separate bowl. "You need to have something with cold water, because between each thing that I'm going to blanch, I'm going to shock it in cold water," Gray explains.
- The sprouts can cook anywhere from five to 10 minutes, depending on how crunchy you like them. Take them out of the boiling water and shock them in the cold water.
- Squeeze. With each vegetable, drain by wringing them out with your hands. (It's a hack, after all. The fewer cooking utensils, the better, right?)
- Put bean sprouts aside, and to the same pot of boiling water, add the spinach.
- Let the spinach cook for only about 30 seconds to a minute, until wilted.
- Take out the spinach, shock in cold water and once it's sufficiently cold, squeeze as much moisture out of it as possible, forming the spinach into a ball.
- Cut the spinach ball into quarters and put on a plate.
- Whole eggplants go into the water last. Boil until soft and easy to tear.
- Take out eggplant, shock in cold water and wring it out. The more moisture you can wring out of the eggplant, the more it will absorb the sesame oil you add later.
- The eggplant should be soft enough to shred with a fork or tear with your hands into thin, bite-sized strips. Plate the eggplant.
- To flavor the vegetable plates, add a little minced garlic, sesame oil and soy sauce to taste. Use your fingers to work in the oil, garlic and soy sauce, then top the dishes with crushed sesame seeds. For the eggplant, add red pepper flakes to taste. And there you have it.
- Serve with rice and, if you'd like, soup. A main meat dish isn't necessary, as banchan often is the meal.
LYNN NEARY, HOST:
Move over kimchi. Korean cooking is much more than spicy fermented cabbage. Banchan, seasoned and often pickled side dishes, are part of what's popularizing Korean food around the globe, but they typically take time to prepare. NPR's Seoul correspondent Elise Hu shares a trick for making superfast banchan that you can easily try at home.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Step off an alley in Seoul into Dan Gray's restaurant, Brew 3.14.
DAN GRAY: Hey, how are you doing?
HU: Thanks for letting me stop by.
Gray is a restaurateur and food blogger who reviews Korean cuisine at a site called Seoul Eats. He also loves to cook, and Korean meals can require a lot of cooking. That's because if you sit down for any Korean meal, the banchan dishes seem to stack up.
GRAY: So banchan are - literally means half plate. With a Korean meal, you always have to have some side dishes. If you went to a Korean place and you didn't have any side dishes, you know that place is really poor, and it's really bad; you shouldn't be there.
HU: Making individual half plates can normally take a lot of time. So to get around the tediousness of preparing banchan, Gray found a shortcut.
GRAY: This is really a hack. This is like the bachelor's way of making side dishes. Sorry, but your Korean mother will hate me making this way.
HU: That's because Korean moms usually take the time to make each banchan individually. But by doing it this way, Gray can make three types of colorful banchan in a single pot using the same water, and he can do it quickly.
GRAY: We're going to do some bean sprouts, we're going to do some spinach, and then we're going to do some eggplant.
HU: The order of operations is key because you're using the same water to cook three different types of vegetables. We start from the lightest color - the white bean sprouts - and work up to the darkest - eggplant.
GRAY: The eggplant is the thing that's going to turn the water really purple so you don't want to do that in reverse or you're going have some very weird looking bean sprouts or really weird looking spinach.
HU: Once our big pot of salted water gets boiling, we begin; so does the timer. The bean sprouts go in the boiling water while Dan preps a separate bowl of icy cold water.
GRAY: So you can hear the water over here. So you need to have something with cold water because between each thing that I'm going to blanch, I'm going to shock it in the cold water.
HU: Banchan dishes are typically served room temperature or out of the fridge, so shocking the veggies is key and so is the squeeze - a critical step.
GRAY: You're going to squeeze the water out of these as much as you can. And Koreans, they always like to do everything with their hands.
HU: With the sprouts out of the pot, we send in the spinach.
GRAY: And the spinach is only going to go for, like, maybe 30 seconds.
HU: Once the spinach is out, the eggplant goes in the same boiling pot. After each vegetable bundle is cooked, shock it in cold water, wring out as much moisture as possible, and then Gray will pull apart the eggplant into bite-sized strips with his hands.
GRAY: I'm going to squeeze some more water out here. If I get more water out of this, it's - the eggplant will absorb more of the flavor.
HU: To flavor the vegetable plates, add a little minced garlic, sesame oil and soy sauce. Use your fingers to work in the oil and seasoning. Then top the dishes with crushed sesame seeds. And there you have it.
GRAY: At the end, you have three different Korean side dishes, and you just need some rice, yeah.
HU: All that took 17 minutes total. But how does it taste? Native Korean Lucy Lee happened to be sitting at the bar while we were cooking and asked to taste-test Gray's creation.
LUCY LEE: It's better than what I thought (laughter) because I saw the whole process. But, yeah, it's better than what I thought.
HU: The speed surprised her, too.
LEE: Yeah, it was really fast, but I like the seasoning.
HU: This is so easy I feel like I could do it.
GRAY: Oh, you could totally do this - I think - I totally think so. And your husband and your - everyone will be so impressed with you.
HU: If you're time-starved and vegetable-deprived, it's a short path from raw veggies to several plates of fresh Korean banchan. But don't be afraid to use your hands. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.