Thursday, August 16, 2012

Banchan for charity: Would you buy it?

Banchan is as intrinsic to 한식 hansik (Korean food) as pork is to Spanish cuisine. It would be anathema to have one without the other. A Korean restaurant without 반찬 banchan might be called a Chinese or Mongolian restaurant by the culinary illiterate. Even if a Korean restaurant has mediocre banchan, the idea of not offering it at all would be an affront to all that is Korean. Charging for banchan is almost as heretical.

A recent Seattle Weekly restaurant review about Chan's, a new "modern Korean fusion" restaurant in Seattle, brought the debate over charging for banchan back to the forefront of my mind.

The banchan spread at Brothers Korean BBQ in San Francisco, Calif., comes with the meal. (Tammy Quackenbush photo)
Normally, restaurant reviews are not the place for serious commentary about the future of Korean cuisine or talking points in the ongoing debate on how to promote hansik beyond that nation's shores.

Last year, ZenKimchi Food Journal editor Joe McPherson and I wrote dueling editorials about charging for banchan. It was sparked by an interview in The Korea Herald with former restaurateur Cho Tae-kwon that included his advice for convincing non-Koreans to appreciate hanshik.

McPherson flat out rejected the concept at the time, dismissing it as silly. My knee-jerk reaction was very similar. I told KoreafornianCooking.com Facebook fans at the time, "Yeah charging for banchan is 바보 (babo, dumb)."

After my initial "You've got to be kidding!" I tapped into my inner Ayn Rand and wondered with words about a way to charge for banchan.

If you make your own banchan at home, you have a small idea of how much work goes into making it. (Tammy Quackenbush photo)
I thought at the time there was only one way a restaurant could convince customers to happily and willingly go along with it. If a restaurant were to inform patrons that as much time, effort and care went into sourcing ingredients for and preparing banchan as with main dishes, customers would learn to value banchan as highly as the chef does and be willing to pay accordingly.

In other words, banchan better be as good, or even better, than the main dishes for it to work. After years, even generations, of teaching people that banchan are gratis, convincing people otherwise would be an uphill battle.

According to Hanna Raskin of Seattle Weekly, Chan's in Seattle may have found another way to convince people to buy banchan — one I would have never considered — charity.
"(Chan's) won't bring banchan to the table unless guests pledge three bucks to Korean Foster Care. That's not a suggested donation: It's the mandated price, listed on the menu. … 

"Every nibble on the vegetable tray is attractive and fresh, but the decision to charge for the mini-spread is bound to flummox eaters accustomed to Korean traditions."
So, it sounds like the banchan selection is carefully considered, made with fresh ingredients. A certain kind of customer can appreciate that attention to detail.


VIP Restaurant (aka Yang Bin restaurant) in Anchorage, Alaska, doesn't charge for banchan either. (Tammy Quackenbush photo)
Would a restaurant have to extol the organic ingredients and artistic skill to get you to part with a few more of your hard-earned dollars for a first or second round of banchan?

Or is a simple tug on the heart strings enough to pay extra for banchan that would be included in the meal price at many Korean restaurants on either side of the Pacific?

What would your reasons be for paying more or not?

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