So you already know that Korean fried chicken is addicting. (If not, click and read this.) But what about that quintessential chicken dish of all time, the dish that exists in almost every country and culture? Of course I’m talking about chicken soup. It’s the ultimate soup of healthy eating, a cure-all, a bowl of warmth and comfort.
In Korea, it’s called samgyetang(삼계탕), “ginseng chicken soup”. It’s a very popular dish but come summer, it’s one of the most popular dishes in the nation; especially on the three days we call ‘bok day’s (복날).
Bok days are the three hottest days of the year according to the Lunar Calendar. Summer is the season right before the autumn harvest, when people work the hardest. Being exposed to the scorching heat while working the fields left many dehydrated and fatigued, so on Bok Days people would take a break, feast on foods to replenish their strength and stamina, and frolic in cool streams and rivers.
Since meat was rare in the old days, it became tradition to eat meat. The most common meat was chicken and was made into soup to add heat to the tired body. For those who couldn’t afford to eat meat, Bok Days was also an excuse to devour watermelon and chamoe(참외, Korean yellow melon). Nobility were also awarded with ice from the royal court, but along with fruit, both are almost everyday occurrences these days so it’s mostly the tradition of samgyetang that stayed.
Samgyetang is made of a whole young chicken stuffed with glutinous rice, ginseng, jujubes, garlic, and ginger. The chicken is “closed” shut and cooked in a broth. The richness of the broth depends on the style of the cook, as is the added (or subtracted) ingredients that may be added.
Some samgyetang broths are cooked for hours. This broth is added to the chicken cooking separately (in broth) to create a very rich soup. Other broths are lighter and clear. It’s a matter of preference.
Once a trend but now an established variety, the “well-being” samgyetang is infused with medicinal herbs and plants, creating very unique flavors and tastes according to the added ingredients.
Samgyetang is usually served with salt and pepper, which is put in a small separate dish to dip the meat. Some people like to add the seasoning directly into the soup. It is always served with kkakdugi(깍두기, radish kimchi) and some restaurants will offer regular cabbage kimchi as well.
You will have an extra empty dish at your side as well, to take out parts of the chicken and its stuffed contents to let it cool before eating. Samgyetang is served boiling hot, and when I say boiling, I mean it in the most literal sense. (Check out the video clip below.)
The glutinous rice can be especially hot, so beware. Many people have burned the roof of their mouths by over-enthusiastic eating.
This year, the three Bok Days fall on July 14th, July 24th, and August 13th. Don’t be surprised to see long lines of people waiting in front of samgyetang restaurants. And don’t be afraid to wait in line, either. It’s definitely worth the wait, so have a go and enjoy a healthy Korean tradition.