Ginseng Chicken Soup at Tosokchon – Seoul
Samgyetang (삼계탕) is a chicken soup made with whole young chicken stuffed with sticky rice, ginseng, and jujubes. Served in a hot steaming stone pot, one would think samgyetang would be a perfect wintertime soup. However, samgyetang is meant to be eaten in the summer. It sounds crazy, but there’s a method to this Korean madness. In the hottest days of summer, when you’re tired and drained of energy from the heat, samgeytang is said to replenish all the nutrients lost in your body, and also cool you down. When you’re body is filled with hot ginseng soup, you naturally feel cooler outside as you sweat up a storm. Strange, but it works.
While in Korea, Joo Hyun kept insisting we had to eat samgyetang, but each time, I resisted. All the times in America when I’ve eaten samgyetang, it’s been unbelievably filling. And since we were always full from street snacking, I thought it would push me over the edge. But after much coaxing by our lovely “guide,” one day, David and I went to try the samgyetang (KR ₩13,000/US $11.28) at Tosokchon Samgyetang (토속촌 삼계탕), and good god, it changed the way I think of samgyetang forever. Always trust the locals, especially if one of them is named Joo Hyun.
The meal started with lots of fresh-tasting kimchi, cabbage and radish (깍두기, ggakdugi). On each table there was a stone pot of each and little plates so you could help yourself. It seems a lot of non-Koreans think kimchi is good when it’s beyond ripe. Sometimes kimchi that is a hair over ripe is good, but if the kimchi is soggy with too much tang, and the juice is bubbling, it’s time to make kimchi jigae (kimchi stew). If I’m served kimchi that’s too fermented at a restaurant, I’ll immediately return it. Like any self-respecting Korean, I take my kimchi seriously.
We also got a little shot of ginseng soju each for free. If you like ginseng, you’ll like ginseng soju. I personally am not crazy for it. I’m a simple girl. I like my soju plain and straight. In this case though, it was a good way to kick off the meal.
And then the chicken arrived stuffed with ginseng sticky rice and bathing in a rich soup filled with gingko, jujubes, more ginseng, and garnished with crunchy pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and scallions. Most noticeably, the young chicken was tiny. It wasn’t a super-sized American chicken so the meat was soft tender and flavorful. Don’t get me wrong, giant American chicken monstrosities are fine when it’s heavily spiced or seasoned, but samgyetang is a simple dish. If the chicken isn’t fresh or bland, it’ll be obvious. According to Joo Hyun, the family that owns the restaurant has a small farm outside of Seoul and raises a special breed of chickens specifically for the restaurant.
To eat samgyetang, you tear off a little meat from the chicken with your chopsticks and dip it in course salt and black pepper before taking a bite. At Tosokchon, this wasn’t difficult. The fall-off-the-bone meat yielded to the slightest nudge of our chopsticks. As for the soup, it was hearty with a nice thick mouthfeel. It tasted almost creamy. Lovely.
Tosokchon is famous for samgyetang, but they also have rotisserie. I didn’t try it, but definitely will the next time I go back. Hopefully in the near future.
A week after we got back, David couldn’t stop talking about the samgyetang. He said it was his favorite meal from our entire East Asian trip. Supposedly there’s a place in Palisades Park that has really good samgyetang so I went with my parents to try it out. David said he didn’t even want to bother because he knew it wouldn’t live up to Tosokchon. I was willing to give them a shot, but unfortunately, David was right. The chicken was gigantic, tough, and a tad funky. It’s true what they say, it’s all about the ingredients. Bigger isn’t always better.
Tosokchon Samgyetang (토속촌 삼계탕)
85-1 Chebu-dong, Jongno-gu
Seoul, South Korea (map)