I was reading a book on Korean food history the other day and came across this gem:
“The last king of the Baekje Dynasty was so energized and nourished by samgyetang made from Baekje chicken and Geumsan ginseng that he was able to bed 3000 court ladies.”
I’d heard 삼계탕, samgyetang was revitalizing, but I had no idea it had Viagra-like powers. (I guess that Baekje king was onto something, though—a 2002 study demonstrated that ginseng, a root long prized in Asian traditional medicine, can “enhance libido and copulatory performance.”)
Anyway, enough about sex. Baekje was one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea and lasted from 18 B.C. to 660 A.D., which means Koreans have been eating samgyetang, one of my favorite soups, for over 1300 years.
It’s essentially a whole, young chicken, small enough to fit into a single-serving stoneware bowl, stuffed with sweet, sticky rice, plenty of garlic, and ginseng. The chicken is simmered in water right in that bowl, along with jujubes, more ginseng and other “good-for-you” ingredients, if you like, until the meat becomes incredibly tender and the bowl is filled with a rich, fragrant broth.
If you have a source for delicious, quality chickens, the kind that have real flavor, it’s very easy to make at home. It may be blasphemous for me to say so, but I think it’s delicious even when you can’t find ginseng. You essentially stuff the chicken, pin it up with toothpicks or sew it up if you’re less lazy than I, and stick it in a pot. A more detailed recipe will be in the cookbook, I promise.
But the best place to try it in Seoul (and possibly the world) may be Seoul Samgyetang, otherwise known as Seoul Nutrition Center. (Nearly every restaurant in Korea that sells samgyetang calls itself a “nutrition center.”) Located in downtown Seoul, it’s in the old-fashioned alley of restaurants behind the Plaza Hotel.
I can’t give you a street address because Seoul is only starting to name its streets—hence the little map printed on the back of all restaurant cards—but the phone number is 775-4300. (If you have a Korean relative, this map will help you. If not, ask your hotel concierge.)
Because chicken is the central ingredient in samgyetang, the restaurant is also a great place to try other iconic Korean chicken dishes, like 안동찜닭, a braised chicken and noodle dish made famous in the city of Andong, and 닭도리탕, spicy chicken and potato stew. We ordered one of each, jjimdak, doritang, and samgyetang. The waitress told us it was too much food for the five of us and not to order the samgyetang, but we ignored her.
The first dish to appear was the Andong jjimdak, a giant platter of sweet potato dakmyeon or glass noodles, tossed with pieces of bone-in chicken and vegetables, including cooked cucumbers, which tasted much better than I expected. The sauce was a light one, yet spicy, which wasn’t surprising given the copious amounts of dried red peppers. It was more of a dry heat that hit me a bit in the back of my throat, which sounds unpleasant but wasn’t. The chicken was tender and flavorful, even the white meat, and the chewiness of the noodles complemented the meat very well.
The second plate they put on the table was full of dakdoritang, red and spicy in a completely different way. The heat here came from ground red pepper and probably a touch or more of red pepper paste, so that the sauce was slightly sweet and wonderful mixed with rice. The quality of the chicken was apparent in this dish as well. I loved how the potatoes soaked in the flavor and gave the dish a warm, starchy, comforting quality.
Both dishes served the chicken in the Korean way, the whole chicken chopped up, not a part thrown away, which is why as we rooted around, each platter yielded that curved piece, the chicken’s neck. The sul anju, or the snack served with the complimentary cup of ginseng wine, was sautéed chicken gizzards, chewy to the point of being almost elastic but surprisingly tasty.
But the dish that highlighted the flavor of the chicken best was, of course, the samgyetang, the chicken-ginseng soup. While the dakdoritang and the jjimdak was the kind of food that’s fun with a crowd, the samgyetang was the kind of dish you want for yourself and yourself alone. The broth was clear and rich, with a noticeable ginseng, rootsy flavor, but without overpowering the familiar and delicious chicken flavor. It was one of the most balanced samgyetangs I’ve ever had, as so many places overload the ginseng, as if to prove they used that expensive ingredient. Compared to the spice and heat of the Andong braised chicken or the potato and chicken stew, the samgyetang didn’t create any fireworks in my mouth. But it tasted so right.
And I felt so virile. Just kidding! But I did feel warm and happy and fully nourished.
Here’s one last photo of samgyetang you can get in New York, at Arirang on 32nd St. To me, the flavor is a little muddy, especially compared to the clarity of the samgyetang I had at Seoul Samgyetang, but in a pinch, it’ll do.