Long before “eat the rainbow” was a hashtag, Korean tables featured colorful arrays of banchan, side dishes that are meant to be shared and eaten with your meal.
“If you look at a Korean table, it’s very well-balanced because of banchan,” said Selina S. Lee, founder of the Oakland-based cooking class series Banchan Workshop. “I could just live on banchan and rice.”
More color equals more nutrition, and banchan brings in the flavor, too: Think blanched greens seasoned with garlic and sesame; beans, quail eggs or beef in sweet soy sauce reductions; sautéed anchovies or shredded squid, with or without spicy chili sauce. Mushrooms, tubers and tofu make the rounds, and of course, kimchi. And that’s just scratching the surface.
Making a variety of banchan from scratch can be pretty time-consuming, and Lee, whose family immigrated to the East Bay from Seoul when she was 12, marvels while looking back at her mother’s ability to put a full Korean meal (complete with fresh banchan) on the table every night while working full-time. Later, as a mother herself, Lee started gathering friends to make banchan together over the weekend, which evolved into her popular cooking classes.
To Lee, banchan is special — it’s a culinary tradition unique to Korea, which is why she stuck with the name even as her cooking classes have moved beyond banchan into stews, noodles and bibimbap. She’s held workshops at Oaktown Spice Shop and Neighbor in Oakland, and Feastly and EatWith in San Francisco. Sometimes her mom makes guest appearances at the kimchi workshops, with Lee translating at her side.
Lee tries to introduce at least two techniques (like braising and sautéing) in each of the banchan-specific workshops, and teaches Korean seasoning based on a system of sauces she’s developed to simplify the process.
“I’m hoping that the workshop can be used as sort of a… gateway to get that started for you,” she said. “If you’re like, whoa, this is really intimidating, then maybe come to my workshop and be like, oh yeah, that seems doable.” For those who want the full introduction to Korean cooking, she cycles through a basic repertoire over the course of a year.
Cooking wasn’t always a passion for Lee — her mother and two sisters were the cooks in the family, while Lee was the artist. At Thanksgiving, they did the heavy lifting. “They’d say, ‘Oh just bring the store-bought desserts,’” she said, laughing. That all began to change a few years ago, when Lee started sharing stories on her lifestyle blog about cooking for her husband and their two boys. A graphic designer for 20 years, she discovered that she enjoyed the aesthetics of cooking, setting the table and food photography. Followers began peppering her with questions about Korean cooking techniques, and as she pursued answers, she discovered how much fun the act of cooking was.
Last year, Lee made the jump from being a full-time designer to focusing on Banchan Workshop entirely. “I was sitting in front of the computer getting my hours done, but then my mind and my heart would be thinking about Banchan Workshop,” she said. “So eventually I just decided to just walk away. I didn’t have anything lined up, but I knew I could keep myself busy creating content.”
It wasn’t easy to explain to her mother. “I think she’s a little soksanghae because I did all that studying,” Lee said, using the Korean word for “upset” that implies feeling more wounded than angry. “But you know, I sat down and explained to her that I was so unhappy doing what I was doing, that I know this is hard labor but I’m one hundred times happier doing this. So I think she understands now.”
And she hasn’t completely abandoned her design background: It’s right there, in her attention to detail, her immaculate, minimalist spreads; her simple, soothing cooking videos lit by natural light and accompanied by the quiet burble of stews or the gentle chik-chik-chik of a knife against a cutting board.
So what’s next for Lee and Banchan Workshop? Recently, she developed the menu for Oakland’s new Korean fast-casual eatery Dosirak Shop. And after a summer hiatus, she’ll be starting up classes again, beginning with a kimchi workshop on Sept. 24 at the Albany Oaktown Spice Shop. And over time, she hopes to develop her own take on modern Korean cooking — not “fusion,” she’s quick to say, but something that sticks to Korean flavors with new executions.
After all, Lee sees evolution as a part of growing as a cook. When asked if she gets her son-mat (literally, “hand flavor,” or signature taste) from her mother, her answer was disarmingly modest: “I don’t think I’ll ever get there!” But then she grew reflective. “So I think it’s like… you have to keep trying. You come up with a recipe you like, you make it your own. And it becomes… your own son-mat.”
Oh and about those Thanksgivings: Lee says she’s now been promoted to homemade side dishes. Next year? Maybe even the turkey.
The next Banchan Workshop on sukbakji kimchi will take place 7:15-9:15 p.m., Sept. 24, at Oaktown Spice Shop, 1224 Solano Ave. (at Talbot), Albany. Tickets are $60.
Sonja Swanson writes about food, travel and culture in Korea and the American West. You can follow her mostly-inactive Twitter account @sonjamswanson.