Samgyetang (삼계탕), the chicken and ginseng medicinal soup

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Author: Anna Franco Ucar

Traditional Korean cuisine has long been considered one of the best dietary options due to its countless health benefits. The main reason is that Koreans base their diet on balance, including in their meals different types of preparations with a wide variety of fresh and fermented ingredients, vegetables, cereals, and lean proteins, which are low in saturated fats and calories. Therefore, on every Korean table you will find a bowl of rice (, bap) or barley (보리, bori), high-fibre cereals; seasoned (무침, muchim), blanched (나물, namul) or pickled (장아찌, jangajji) vegetables, typically greens, which are rich in vitamins and antioxidants; fermented foods such as 김치 (kimchi), a good source of probiotics that take care of the intestinal flora; and a nutritious stew or broth (찌개, jjigae;, tang; , guk), served piping hot to regulate body temperature and facilitate digestion. One of the most representative soups from South Korea is Samgyetang (삼계탕), the chicken and ginseng medicinal soup.

Samgyetang (sam, ginseng; gye, chicken; tang, soup) is a traditional Korean soup made primarily of a whole young chicken stuffed with glutinous rice, garlic, jujube (Asian dried red date), and ginseng. This is boiled in a delicate, but hearty broth of medicinal herbs and roots. Some versions also include chestnuts, ginger, milkvetch root, chives, ginkgo fruits, seeds, and even other meats or seafood to further enrich the broth; however, the traditional preparation that highlights the chicken and ginseng continues to be the one which is most widespread and popular.

Medicinal herbs and roots for Samgyetang. Photo taken from Gochujar

The origin of this dish is attributed to the Joseon Dynasty era (1392-1910), where it was already customary to cook various soup recipes containing young chicken and serve it to the elders so that they would regain energy on hot days. However, the most similar precursor to today’s samgyetang appears in the 1917 recipe book 조선 요리제법 (Joseon yorijebeob), which is a compilation of traditional dishes from the Joseon Dynasty, where dakguk (닭국), a soup with a glutinous rice and ginseng powder stuffed chicken, is mentioned. This dish began to be sold commercially in restaurants around 1940, renamed Gyesamtang (계삼탕), since chicken was considered its primary ingredient. From the 1960s onwards, with the arrival of modern refrigerators in Korea, it was possible to start using fresh ginseng instead of powder, and the name of the dish was changed again to Samgyetang, to emphasise the medicinal properties of this root.

Porridge made with the leftover stuffing from Samgyetang. Photo taken by me

Although it may seem somewhat illogical, since it is a hot soup, samgyetang is mainly consumed in summer, especially on the three hottest and sultry days of the lunar calendar, collectively called 삼복 (sambok) or 복날 (boknal). (bok) refers to the day when yin energy drastically decreases in the face of the increasing yang energy, which occurs in 초복 (chobok, “main bok day”), 중복 (jungbok, “middle bok day”) and 말복 (malbok, “final bok day”). According to Eastern medicine, blood circulates closer to the skin in summer in order to cool the body, resulting in worse blood circulation and the slowing down of organ functions. This is why drinking hot foods or drinks in summer has higher health benefits, since they help regulate body temperature, promoting better circulation and accelerating the metabolism. Additionally, the ingredients and medicinal plants present in samgyetang provide many other benefits. Ginseng has great invigorating properties and helps recover the nutrients lost through perspiration; jujube is rich in vitamin C, which strengthens the immune system, and is a great anti-inflammatory and antibacterial; garlic prevents infections; and the healthy fats in chicken strengthen vital organs, promoting their proper functioning.

Of course, this dish is not only popular for its many medicinal properties, but also for its delicious taste. The broth is thick and rich, a mixture of simple and earthy flavours balanced with the acidic touch of jujube and the sweet-bitterness of ginseng; and the chicken is so tender and juicy that it practically melts in your mouth. Since it is not cooked with seasonings, some people may find the chicken too bland, so it is common to accompany samgyetang with a mixture of salt and pepper and a dipping sauce. Additionally, many restaurants serve a selection of 반찬 (banchan, side dishes) along with samgyetang, typically 깍두기 (kkakdugi) or other types of kimchi, slices of raw garlic, and green chili. There are also restaurants specialising in samgyetang, called 삼계탕전문집 (samgyetangjeonmunjib), which offer several versions of their signature dish, and often complement it with a small bottle of ginseng wine (인삼주, insamju), which can be taken as shots, or added to the broth to enhance its flavour.

Different types of Samgyetang and porridge. Photo taken from lifestyle.inq

If you have the chance to visit South Korea in summer, heed the Korean saying and “fight fire with fire” (이열 치열, iyeol chiyeol) by enjoying a delicious bowl of samgyetang!

Reading pair: Andrea Ramírez

Revised by: Marisol Montiel


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