Can a bowl of warm soup comfort you on a hot summer day? South Koreans say yes.
On the three hottest summer days in Korea, called Boknal or Sambok, people love drinking a hot bowl of Samgyetang. The word 'sam' means ginseng, and 'gye' means chicken in Hangeul.
For them, this hot chicken and ginseng soup is the perfect way to warm up and feel comforted during scorching summer days. The traditional dish consists of a whole young chicken stuffed with rice, ginseng, and various herbs, then simmered in a rich broth.
Boknal consists of three days, Chobok (beginning), Jungbok (middle), and Malbok (last), on the lunar calendar in Korea. This year, the days will fall on July 11, July 21, and August 10, of the Gregorian calendar, respectively.
Why ginseng and chicken?
During Boknal, people eat healthy food to replenish their stamina and beat the summer heatwave.
Ginseng is known to boost the immune system and increase energy levels. It is known for its ability to 'dispel' heat from the body. Combined with chicken and a blend of herbs, Samgyetang is considered a healthy dish believed to strengthen the body.
Initially, the soup was named ‘Gyesamtang’, but it was changed to ‘Samgyetang’ when people realised that ginseng was the more valuable ingredient in the soup.
The dish gained popularity worldwide after being featured in the K-drama 'Descendants of the Sun', in which the main character Yoo Shi-jin (played by actor Song Joong-ki) is often seen savouring a warm bowl of soup.
Expats talk about what makes Samgyetang unique
Hyeri Hwang, the owner of Taon Korean Restaurant in Abu Dhabi, says, “In the summertime, our tradition was to gather with family and friends at a restaurant in Yangpyeong Valley, Gyeonggi Province, South Korea, to enjoy Samgyetang. My mum used to cook Samgyetang at home because it has Korean ginseng inside. When I was younger, I didn't enjoy the flavour, but now it's become my favourite.”
In the summertime, our tradition was to gather with family and friends at a restaurant in Yangpyeong Valley, Gyeonggi Province, South Korea, to enjoy Samgyetang.
Instant Samgyetang has become a popular choice for people who want a quick and satisfying meal. “Many people love this dish because it can be easily prepared by heating it in boiling water," she added.
Speaking to Gulf News, Mijung Hong, manager at Korean Cultural Center, said: "I have Samgyetang during Sambok. My mother used to make it for me whenever I was sick because it had many health benefits. It's a typical dish to have during Sambok season. I even had Samgyetang in Abu Dhabi during Sambok. Cooking Samgyetang at home is relatively easy, so I usually make it myself.”
"When I cook samgyetang at home, I use a small fresh chicken and add lots of garlic and spring onion to give you the aroma of soup and goes well with the ginseng in Samgyetang. One of my favourite restaurants is called Youngyang Centre in Korea," said Jun Lee, who works as a manager for a Korean restaurant.
Sohee Kim, an airline cabin crew, enthusiastically talks about the soupy dish. She said: "It is one of my favourite dishes. I enjoy eating Samgyetang, a dish I love to have both in summer and winter. It's easy to prepare at home, and I enjoy having it with abalone or octopus. Combining seafood with the dish adds more flavour to the soup."
The history of Samgyetang
According to the official website of South Korea's Rural Development Administration, Koreans have been making soup with chicken since the Joseon era (1392-1897).
Samgyetang was popular among wealthy Koreans during the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945) too, and they enjoyed chicken soup with ginseng powder.
It became more popular among ordinary people following the 1960s. The origin of this meal dates back to Korea's agricultural past when food was scarce and not of great quality.
Samgyetang is more than just a delightful culinary experience. This dish exemplifies the traditional Korean concept of 'yakshik-dongwon', which means food is medicine.
Daniel Gray, a renowned Korean food blogger and restaurateur at Seoul Eats, says on his website: "Individuals require protein-rich and calorie-dense food to maintain their energy levels during summer."
Gray explains that there was a shortage of meat during the summers. Instead, people had to resort to smaller animals such as duck, chicken, and eel for their protein intake. Eating these helped people to have enough energy to work efficiently. He also mentioned chicken was traditionally considered a non-nutritious meat. So it was brewed with ginseng and other herbs to add nutrition.
According to the Korean Food Promotion Institution's website, over the centuries, Samgyetang has evolved into a beloved dish that people from all walks of life enjoy.
Preparation, ingredients, and serving
The main ingredients – ginseng, chicken, and various herbs, were chosen for their medicinal properties. The herbs include liquorice (gamcho), wild mulberry tree, angelica root, milkvetch root, and acanthopanax.
The preparation of Samgyetang is a meticulous process that involves a combination of select ingredients and precise cooking techniques. While there may be slight variations in recipes across different regions in Korea, the core components remain consistent.
A whole young chicken is meticulously cleaned and stuffed with glutinous rice, ginseng, jujubes (Korean dates), garlic, and other medicinal herbs. The chicken is then simmered in a broth until it reaches tender perfection. The resulting soup, infused with the flavours of the ingredients, is served piping hot, often garnished with finely chopped scallions. Side dishes such as kimchi, pickled vegetables, and rice accompany the hearty soup, creating a balanced and satisfying meal.
Like most Korean soups, it's served in the same bowl it's cooked in, a stone dol-sot bowl (Korean stoneware made from fine clay or fine stone), which means it's still at a rolling boil when it comes to the table.
Samgyetang, with its deep-rooted history and medicinal origins, continues to captivate palates and hearts across Korea and beyond. From its humble beginnings in the Joseon dynasty to its present-day popularity, this ginseng-infused chicken soup symbolises the harmony between nourishment, tradition, and cultural heritage.
Looking for a way to cool down this summer? Check out this recipe that can help reduce your body heat.
Preparation time: 25 minutes
Cooking time: 90 minutes
1kg whole chicken with skin
1/2 cup sticky rice or glutinous rice
1 piece of dried or fresh Korean ginseng
5 to 6 garlic cloves
5 to 6 dried jujube
1 Samgyetang soup kit (store bought)
2 to 3 tbsp of sliced spring onions
1/2 white onion (sliced)
2 litres of water
Salt to taste
Wash the chicken, including the cavity, thoroughly under running cold water.
Pat dry the exterior and the cavity with paper towels.
Stuff the chicken cavity with sticky rice, ginseng, garlic cloves, and jujube. Cross the chicken legs and tie them with a thread. Alternatively, you can make a slit on one side of the chicken thigh skin and put the other leg through it. It is to minimise the stuffed ingredients falling out.
Pour the water into a large pot and add the stuffed chicken. Add the rest of the ingredients to the pot.
Place the pot over a medium-high flame and cover it. Let it cook for 20 minutes.
Now, lower the flame to medium-low and continue boiling until the chicken is fully cooked. Additionally, ensure that the stuffed sweet rice is cooked thoroughly.
Skim off the foam and cover for 10 minutes. Season broth with salt and pepper to taste.
Transfer the chicken and the soup into a serving bowl. Garnish with the green onion and serve.
You can also pair it with some Kimchi if you'd like.
You can purchase a Samgyetang soup kit from stores in the UAE. This pack includes all the necessary ingredients, like red jujube dates, chestnuts, liquorice root, glutinous rice, and other herbs, making it a convenient option.
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