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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.
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