The Korea Herald stirs up debate over banchan

Imagine if a Korean restaurant gave you a menu of banchan (side dishes) and allowed you to pick desired items, just like you do at home? (Tammy Quackenbush photo)


KwangJuYo Chief Executive Officer Cho Tae-kwon, a former restaurateur Korean media regularly consult on hansik (Korean cuisine), served up controversy in an interview with The Korea Herald by suggesting that charging for traditionally complimentary banchan (appetizers commonly accompanying Korean meals) would create a demand for the items.

“Putting value to namul (herb) dishes, for example, will create demand for variously priced namul. The story of how namul is picked by hand on the mountainside in springtime will add to the value of namul.”

Most of the interview discussed the South Korean government’s continuing efforts to popularize Korean cuisine around the world. He said many Korean restaurants compete with each other on the selection and number of banchan dishes.

Charging for banchan also would reduce food waste in Korea, Cho suggested.

“It is also responsible for the tremendous waste of food. More than 1.3 trillion won is wasted every year as food garbage.”

I strongly agree. Food waste is a real problem in the country.

On Cho’s assertion that the premium would create demand for banchan, my gut reaction was, You’re kidding, right? Or as I wrote in a Facebook thread I set up discussing this article, “Yeah charging for banchan is 바보.”

However, charging a modest fee for banchan could increase the popularity of particular dishes with careful banchan menu planning, marketing and advertising. Growing on Cho’s notion of niche namul, a chef could craft such a menu made up of seasonal bounty with detailed descriptions of the quality, origin and preparation of ingredients. Similarly, savvy vintners of high-end wines, makers of seasonal craft brews and farmers of organic produce have been able to convince consumers to pay a premium via a well-told story.

Allowing customers to select their side dishes would alert the restaurant to which banchan to keep offering and which to discontinue. This would reduce food waste and give a competitive edge over restaurants with gratis grub. Yet blindly billing for banchan or setting up a restaurant that only serves banchan will not help popularize the dishes or the restaurant doing so.

You can find Joe McPherson’s slightly contrary view on this same article, which he called “Cho Tae-Kwon’s “Noblisse Oblige.”


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3 thoughts on “The Korea Herald stirs up debate over banchan”

  1. At most restaurants the cost of the bancheon is already part of what you pay for your main course. If restaurants keep the entrees the same price and start charging and additional fee for bancheon I foresee street protests rivaling those in the summer of 2008!

    • “At most restaurants the cost of the banchan is already part of what you pay for your main course.” That’s true. Mindlessly charging for banchan will cause any restaurant to lose market share. However, if the restaurant puts as much effort (or more effort) into their banchan as they do their main entree, and let the customer know how much effort they put into the banchan, and let the customer choose which banchan they want to eat, the restuarant can increase the value of the banchan.

      One happy medium between the extremes of not charging for banchan v. nickel and diming for it *might* be this:

      kimchi and one namul banchan (of the customer’s choosing) per customer is free, if you want another namul banchan (of the customer’s choosing), the restaurant charges a modest fee for it.

  2.  Tammy, I agree with you. As a person that meets with hundreds of tourists a month, their perception of banchan are different from Koreans. They already place value on banchan and they would never ask for seconds for many feel it is impolite. I have had guests leave tips after particularly good service at Korean restaurants. Korean “service” in both terms are tremendously undervalued. I think that Korean restaurants themselves need to place more value on their side dishes. Too many Korean restaurants are closing and being replaced with coffee shops and high margin fast food restaurants and we are losing the Korean food culture. If we don’t want to encourage more Korean restaurants to spring up, we need to make it attractive to businesses.


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