I first fell in love with banchan, the little side dishes served at Korean meals, traipsing through L.A.'s Koreatown with chef Debbie Lee. These are tastes designed to be shared throughout the meal. Have a bite of bibimbap and a bit of pickled cucumber. Dig into bulgogi and then pick up a bite of scallion pancake. The variety of flavors and textures can be enormous even if the portions are deliberately petite.
At the new Saja Korean Kitchen down in the Gaslamp, executive chef Jason Velasquez (mostly recently at Katsuya), has create a menu that plays on traditional Korean food but introduces some new flavors and techniques that you probably wouldn't find at your favorite haunts on Convoy.
Hired by restaurateur Alex Thao (Rama and Lucky Liu's), Seattle-native Velasquez has trained extensively with Japanese chefs and also attended classes at Le Cordon Bleu to learn French technique. Korean cuisine wasn't in his wheelhouse, so he spent months eating Korean food here and in L.A. to develop his palate so he could then develop his menu.
Given Saja's lower 4th Ave. location near the San Diego Convention Center and consequently the need to appeal to a broader audience, Velasquez felt that his menu should be Korean inspired, but not literally locked into tradition. He's toned down some of the strong flavors. For example, he doesn't use as much fish sauce in dishes that call for it and uses a milder Japanese variety. He's also keen on cutting down on sugar in his dishes--and, in general, keeping them lighter.
But his banchan reminds me of some of my favorite places here and in L.A. Typically, he services flash boiled and marinated bean sprouts, edamame, pickled cucumbers, kimchi, cabbage with daikon in chili paste and dashi, and marinated broccoli--although he does switch out all but the cucumbers, edamame, kimchi, and bean sprouts. After visiting Saja for dinner last month, I asked Velasquez to teach me how to make a couple of his banchan dishes: his kimchee and pickled cucumbers. He agreed.
"Banchan to me is very simple--it's a way to get the palate started," he says. "It's not so much that it will fill you up but enough to start up your appetite. It's something you can enjoy eating communally."
Both of these recipes are home-cook accessible, though you'll need to make a trip to an Asian market for ingredients like fish sauce, sweet rice flour, sesame oil, konbu (dried edible kelp), and Korean red pepper powder. And you'll need to plan ahead, since these dishes thrive on time to soak in the flavors.
So, let's start with the kimchee. Done right, the salad will be crunchy where the cabbage is thickest but very pliable with the thin part of the leaves. It definitely has a nice kick to it, but the spice is full of flavor, along with the mild tangy fishiness of the shrimp fish sauce. The flavors are complex and irresistible.
Saja Cabbage Kimchee
From Jason Velasquez of Saja Korean Kitchen
Yield: 3 cups
1 head Napa cabbage
2 tablespoons salted brined shrimp
2 tablespoons grated garlic
1/2 grated yellow onion
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1/4 cup sweet rice flour
1/3 Korean red pepper powder
1/4 cup sugar
Pinch of sea salt
1 cup shredded carrots
1/2 cup shredded green onions
Slice the cabbage head in half lengthwise and partially cut through each half, keeping the quarters intact. Place the cabbage in a large bowl and generously sprinkle the leaves throughout the head with sea salt. Cover and refrigerate overnight, or at least 12 hours. The cabbage will wilt and liquid will release to the bottom of the bowl. This allows the cabbage to act like a sponge to absorb the flavors you'll add.
You can make the sauce while the cabbage leaves are salting or the next day. In a food processor, puree the shrimp, garlic, onion, and fish sauce. It can be a little chunky.
In a bowl, combine the rice flour, red pepper powder, sugar, and a pinch of salt. Place it in a saucepan with enough water to make a slurry. Whisk the mixture over medium heat on a burner. As it heats up it will form a light paste. Take it off the heat and let it cool. Once cooled, add to the shrimp mixture.
Rinse the salt from the cabbage. Then wring out the water. Place the cabbage in a bowl and add the carrots and green onions. Pour the sauce over the vegetables and work it into the cabbage, including between the leaves. Fold each of the four quarters of saturated cabbage in half lengthwise and place into a container. Cover and let sit for 24 hours on the counter, unrefrigerated. Then refrigerate. It will taste fine in a day or two, but if you can, wait a week for the flavors to truly come together. Serve as chunks in a small bowl for banchan.
Now on to the pickled cucumber. I'm particularly partial to these flavors because I've been doing an extremely simple version of this for years that I enjoy during heat waves. With this recipe I can ratchet up the flavor with a sweet, slightly spicy, tangy profile, thanks to Valasquez's dynamite vinegar solution and the addition of very smooth, aromatic sesame oil.
Saja Pickled Cucumber
From Jason Velasquez of Saja Korean Kitchen
1 English cucumber (or other seedless cucumbers)
For vinegar solution:
2 quarts Japanese wheat rice vinegar (called suhiro)
1 cup brown sugar
pinch of sea salt
piece of konbu
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/4 cup sesame oil
2 cups of the vinegar solution
1 tablespoon Korean red pepper powder
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
Slice cucumbers in 1/4-inch thick slices so they retain their crunch. Toss with sea salt. Let sit 15 to 20 minutes.
Make the vinegar solution. Heat one quart of the Japanese wheat rice vinegar until it reduces by half. Combine with a second quart of vinegar, 1 cup brown sugar, a pinch of sea salt, and a piece of konbu. Heat the mixture until it's combined. Note: keep the konbu in the mixture. (Velasquez also uses this mixture in his sushi rice.)
Rinse the salted cucumber slices, then place in a kitchen towel and squeeze to remove the liquid.
Empty the cucumber slices into a bowl. In another bowl whisk together the brown sugar, sesame oil, 2 cups of the vinegar solution, the Korean red pepper powder, and the sesame seeds. Pour over the cucumber and let marinate at least six hours but preferably overnight. Serve in small bowls for banchan.
The marinade can also be used as a base for vinaigrette. Add grapeseed oil, Chinese plum sauce, soy sauce, garlic, and ginger.