One of the finest features of the Korean table is that it is invariably laid with a sumptuous array of panchan-- side dishes, bowls, saucers, and plates all bearing different and delicious morsels. Indeed, a simple family meal might have as many as twenty bowls and dishes on the table. Only poor people, says Halmoni, would eat only one dish and rice. When her Korean friends first came over to visit her in Hawaii, they were astounded not to say dismayed at Western ways. "Americans so rich," they said to her after eating a meal that consisted of only one plate of meat, rice, and vegetables, "but why do they eat so poor?"
There are indeed certain essentials without which no Korean meal would be complete. Every person always has his/her own rice bowl, usually lidded and made of metal, filled with steamed white rice or rice mixed with other grains or vegetables. Kimchi in at least one form-- and preferably in two, three or even more varieties-- is always on the table. Soups-- kuk or tang-- are also important features, eaten at every meal, while namuls -- bowls of seasoned raw or slightly steamed vegetables-- should also always be included, together, perhaps, with fried foods-- jon--, and with other side dishes such as salted fish cut into thin strips and seasoned, toasted seaweed, and any number of other dishes made with dried vegetables, meat, or fish. Even substantial dishes of meat, stews, fish, or poultry are often served in small bowls, for they are primarily foods to be eaten in conjunction with all of the other panchan, rather than as a main course of a meal.
Indeed, "main foods" as we tend to think of them, usually don't hold such central pride of place in the scheme of everyday Korean meals. Eating Korean-style consists much more of "grazing" over the whole range of foods displayed on the table, picking a bit of this, nibbling a bit of that, slurping up some bean curd soup and a spoonful of rice, crunching on a bit of kimchi, then choosing again whatever strikes one's fancy. Certainly, foods such as bulgogi, kalbi, or chongol (a Korean version of sukiyaki), placed on burners in the middle of the table, take pride of place. But even so, the quality of a meal may still be measured not by what we would consider a so-called main course but rather by the range and quality of side dishes which accompany them.
This diversity and range highlights another essential tenet of Korean dining, the importance of balance. No one single food or flavor should be overly dominant. Fiery kimchi is balanced by steamed white rice; batter-fried jon is deliciously complemented by crunchy, soy-and-sesame dressed greens; seafresh raw fish and shellfish are perfect counterpoints to tasty, savory barbecued meats. Whatever the components of a Korean meal, this essential balance of foods and flavors must always be maintained.