(Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

First-time diners at Korean restaurants might be startled to see a variety of unordered small plates filling their table. Not to worry: The traditional banchan, or side dishes, come gratis. Kyong Mun, who works at Nak Won in Annandale, says: “It’s the Korean style. No side dish, that’s not a Korean restaurant.”

“Banchan is what makes the table,” says Hyosun Ro, a Fairfax resident who blogs about Korean cooking.

The hundreds of dishes fall into a few basic categories: fermented, such as kimchi; braised, such as potato chunks or soybeans; seasoned, such as spinach or watercress.

Expect to receive three to seven small dishes to be shared during the meal, either alone or with rice. Most will be vegetarian — perhaps because of Buddhist influence on Korea’s cuisine, or the scarcity of meat during the country’s long Japanese occupation. But stir-fried anchovies are a popular item, and some higher-end restaurants might serve dishes such as jangjorim, or soy-braised beef. In formal settings, the more important the meal, the more banchan you’ll get (with a correspondingly larger number of entrees).

At restaurants, chefs choose which banchan they’ll make each day, so you can’t order a favorite a la carte — but it’s fine to ask for seconds of any that you especially liked. At home, Ro says, cooks usually whip up a few basic banchan that keep well and serve them each day until they run out.

Though usually translated as “side” dishes, banchan are actually essential to the meal, Ro explains. “If I make noodles, that will be the major dish,” she says. “But a Korean table requires more than that” to be complete.

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