Celebrate the Sides With a Korean-American Banchan Thanksgiving

For this Korean-American Thanksgiving menu, the focus is on the plentiful and varied side dishes known as banchan, which can easily be scaled to feed groups large and small.

Vicky Wasik

If I were to pick a single image that represents the Thanksgivings of my childhood, it would probably be the whole pineapple studded with maraschino cherries towering over a platter of cocktail slices of loukaniko.

It was as if my mother’s family hit pause on the Thanksgiving Americana of the 1960s, and played its greatest hits on repeat. The moss-green carpeting and the wood panel walls of my yiayia’s house offered the perfect backdrop for radish flowers arranged around a vaguely mayonnaise-y dip and the big burnished bird that might've been cut out of a magazine. There was always a carafe on the table of “The Punch,” a concoction of frozen orange juice, ginger ale, cranberry juice, and grenadine, garnished (of course) with orange slices. My papou insisted on slices of jellied cranberry sauce out of a can, and there was always something on the table that came wrapped in bacon.

Yet my mother’s family also took Thanksgiving as an opportunity to celebrate their Greekness. Lemony roasted potatoes accompanied our very garlicky roast turkey, and ground beef rice pilaf was what we used for stuffing. Garlic, oregano, and lemon formed the basis of all seasoning, and no holiday spread was complete without spanakopita and pastitso. The meal was both full-on American kitsch and very Greek, and the massive amount of food reflected that; to this day, I have the utmost respect for my yiayia for pulling it off for over 60 years with just one oven.

But while my Thanksgivings were Greek, I am not. Growing up, I was a Korean girl in Andover, Massachusetts, a place where a bowl of rice and kimchi was most comfortably enjoyed in a hermetically sealed box.

In an attempt to help me assimilate to the surrounding suburban American reality, my dad taught me how to stuff butternut squash ravioli, cook up spaghetti sauces, and grill burgers, but we’d also share crazy cravings for Korean food, like the boiled oxtails we’d sprinkle with salt and gnaw on with kkakdugi. I thought of it as the perfect combination, the same way the kids on my block loved to dig into bowls of tart tomato soup and buttery grilled cheeses: the hot and fatty boiled oxtails complemented wonderfully the cold, sour, and spicy crunch of radish kimchi.

It wasn’t until I moved to New York City to become a chef that I began to fully explore my Korean culinary heritage. Going to Koreatown, a late-night haunt for chefs from all over the city, became a source of comfort and education. And it was there, as I feasted on bulgogi, kimchi jjigae, and tteokbokki, that I became fascinated by banchan, or Korean side dishes.

Banchan range from kimchi to potato salad to marinated blanched greens to marinated raw crabs, and the sheer variety and number of banchan that can be placed on a table appeals to me both as a professional cook and as a Korean-American. Sohui Kim, a chef mentor of mine, once told me that the quality of a cook’s banchan reveals their love for their craft: she taught me that banchan should reflect the seasons; that the flavors they offer should work in concert with one another, and should also offer a sense of balance to the spread on the table; and they should creatively make use of kitchen scraps and byproducts.

But my passion for banchan extends beyond making them: part of what’s so magical about banchan is the childlike giddiness that appears to infect everyone as the many small plates hit the table. Chopsticks and elbows start flying out, and it's a little like being a kid on Christmas morning, surrounded by colorful packages and the messes they create.

A Korean-American Thanksgiving

When I was approached with the idea for making a Korean-American Thanksgiving meal, I thought immediately of my yiayia’s Thanksgiving spreads, and how they were both recognizably "American" and very, very Greek. I wanted to do something similar, but make it very Korean, and banchan seemed like the perfect medium.

"It isn’t a classic Thanksgiving menu by any means, but it hits all the right notes"

This menu is as representative of my career as a professional cook as it is of my Korean-American identity; it draws its inspiration from my mentors, my father, and my aunt; and it ultimately draws on the lessons learned at my yiayia’s house. It isn’t a classic Thanksgiving menu by any means, but it hits all the right notes: fall flavors, the right bird, an overabundance of delicious food that could (and should) feed both your family and your neighbors. It is, ultimately, as American can be, even if it leans Korean, not unlike my yiayia and her Greek-American spread, with her maraschino-studded pineapple and her cocktail slices of loukaniko.

Turkey Two Ways

Braised Turkey Jjim with Bacon, Shiitakes, and Chestnuts
Braised turkey jjim.

First, I am going to try to talk you out of cooking a whole turkey. I have nothing against The Norman Rockwell Bird, but I prefer seeing it in magazines rather than on my table. For my Thanksgiving turkey, I split up the breast and legs and cook them separately. I roast the breast on the crown, flavoring it with cinnamon, and slowly braise the legs and neck in a mixture of soy sauce, sake, root beer, radishes, and chestnuts, in the style of galbi-jjim. The breast I serve ssam-style, with lettuce and perilla leaves for wrapping the meat and two side condiments—savory jujube relish and honeynut squash ssamjang. Don’t worry, nothing will be dry: the gravy is built into the braised legs recipe, and the spread will be so beautiful you’ll forget all about the whole turkey centerpiece.

roasted turkey breast ssam with Squash Ssamjang and Jujube Date Relish
Turkey breast ssam.

The jujube relish is a nod to jellied cranberry sauce, while the honeynut ssamjang is my riff on a crucial ssam necessity. Honeynut squash is a hybrid squash breed I worked with under the tutelage of Dan Barber, the chef at Blue Hill Stone Barns. At the time, it was just a prototype, and we referred to it as “502.” (Now you can get it at Whole Foods!) When cooked, it’s both caramelly and earthy, and it melds seamlessly with the savory doenjang, spicy-sweet gochujang, garlic, ginger, sesame, and sugar that are typically used to make ssamjang. Spread on a slice of cinnamon-scented turkey breast, the combination is disarmingly Thanksgiving-like in flavor.

Sweet Potato and Sausage Jeon

sweet potato jeon with yangyeom dipping sauce

As an homage to sausage stuffing, and to my aunt standing over her stove and expertly flipping the Korean fritters known as jeon with her chopsticks, I came up with sweet potato and sage sausage jeon. I coarsely grate sweet potato and mix it with scallions, minced sage, and spicy Italian sausage to create a sticky mixture that’s then formed into little patties, resembling mini latkes. I dip the patties in flour and an egg wash before frying them up, and serve them with yangnyeom, soy sauce that I’ve thickened with crushed sesame seeds, garlic, Korean chili flakes, and scallions.

Toasted Barley With Kombu and Pepitas

Toasted Barley Salad With Kombu and Pepitas

I deeply love rice, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that any meal without rice feels incomplete, but that’s particularly true of a Korean meal. And while my yiayia always made an incredible hamburger beef, onion, and rice pilaf to sop up all the Thanksgiving gravy, this year I feel inspired to celebrate the Korean love for barley, with a side dish of toasted barley with kombu and pepitas. I dry-roast hulled barley in a pan until it’s toasty brown (the aroma will fill the kitchen with a popcorn-like nuttiness) and then cook it in water with strips of kombu. After it’s done cooking, I fold in toasted pepitas and a swirl of olive oil. The barley, like steamed rice, has a subtle neutrality, and is similarly perfect for sopping up sauce and eating alongside all the other elements of the meal.

Thanksgiving Banchan

Charred brussels sprouts and fennel with coffee-dijon dressing served in a small banchan-sized bowl

Completing the ensemble are some Thanksgiving-specific banchan: a muchim of charred Brussels sprouts with coffee-Dijon dressing and dried radish pickled in vinegar-y gochujang with fresh cucumbers. The Brussels sprouts in coffee-Dijon are an ode to my favorite banchan, pa muchim, or a scallion salad with mustard dressing that’s often served with grilled pork belly. The dried radish with fresh cucumbers scratches any kimchi cravings I might have (although you should also put out some kimchi, too).

You can also add a range of other banchan to the table—the more the merrier! Siguemchi namul, or marinated spinach, adds a palate-cleansing brightness to the table, and oi muchim, or marinated cucumbers, adds a little more spice. Gamja bokkeum (sweet soy-glazed potatoes) adds some spuds to the spread, and glazed carrots with burnt honey and gochugaru are also right at home in this rich autumnal meal.

A Sweet, Restorative Finish

apple sujeonggwa

To wrap up the whole affair, I came up with a riff on sujeonggwa, a warm non-alcoholic digestif that straddles the line between a tea and punch. Traditionally made with dried persimmons, which can be a little difficult to find, I chose to make it with dried apple chips, which are both easier to find and add an extra autumnal feel to a beverage that already has peak fall vibes, the flavors of warm spices like cinnamon, star anise, and cloves playing off against the brightness of ginger and the sweetness of brown sugar. It’s a little like the flavors of apple pie, but served in a mug.

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