Samgyetang: Fighting Fire With Fire

On the hottest days of summer, Koreans reach for an even hotter remedy—samgyetang, a rejuvenating chicken ginseng soup
August 15, 2019 Updated: August 18, 2019

The soup is still bubbling when it arrives at the table. Outside, it’s 89 degrees. 

It’s late July in New York City and I’d rather be sitting down to a tub of ice cream. Instead, I’m squeezing into a chair at Hansol Nutrition Center, a Korean restaurant in Flushing’s Murray Hill neighborhood, for a piping hot bowl of chicken soup. Steam billows from the broth, reminding me of the hot, muggy air engulfing the city outside.

But according to Korean tradition, I’ve made the right choice. 

Samgyetang, chicken ginseng soup, is one of Korea’s most beloved summertime foods. It’s made from a whole young chicken—that’s an individual serving—stuffed with a mix of sweet sticky rice, ginseng, jujubes, and garlic. The stuffed chicken is then simmered, perhaps with a medley of other medicinal herbs and roots, until the meat is tender and the broth is perfumed with its essence. 

Though celebrated year-round as a nourishing cure-all—the ultimate chicken soup for the soul—samgyetang is traditionally enjoyed on sweltering summer days, considered to be a restorative tonic for the heat. 

This tradition follows the old Korean adage, “yi yeol chi yeol,” which roughly translates to “fight heat with heat,” explained Seoyoung Jung, a Seoul-based chef and co-founder of the Korean food blog Bburi Kitchen. Curiously, samgyetang is not spicy, like so much of the rest of Korean cuisine. But it’s packed with warming, energizing ingredients believed to replenish strength sapped away by the oppressive heat—and ultimately help cool the body down. 

Samgyetang, chicken ginseng soup, is served piping hot and full of medicinal goodness. (Shutterstock)

Dog Days 

Samgyetang is traditionally eaten during sambok, the period of time surrounding the three hottest days of summer, as designated by the lunar calendar. These three “boknal,” or “dog days”—chobok, jungbok, and malbok—fall during the sixth and seventh lunar months, usually straddling July and August. This year, they were July 12, July 22, and August 11.

Each boknal is defined, according to the “Encyclopedia of Korean Seasonal Customs,” as “a day when the yin energy falls prostrate before the soaring yang energy”—in other words, when the summer heat becomes simply overwhelming. To fight off fatigue, build stamina, and rebalance the body, people—especially farmers who had to prepare for the upcoming fall harvest—traditionally turned to food as medicine.

Enter boyangsik, defined as food “that strengthens and replenishes the body,” Im Eun-byel writes for The Korea Herald. “Though the nutritious dishes can be consumed at any time of the year—such as when recovering from a surgery or after giving birth—they are often sought after in summer.”

These tend to be dishes high in protein, including meats and some seafood, and warming in nature. Among the most popular, you might have guessed, is samgyetang. 

Samgyetang starts with chicken, which Jung notes was likely “the easiest meat for Koreans a long time ago.” While cows were difficult to raise and beef was rare and expensive, chickens served as a cheaper and more easily available source of protein, she explained.

To up the nutrition, ginseng, a Korean medicinal darling, was added to the soup. “Traditionally, Korean people believe it’s one of the best sources for re-energizing your body,” Jung said.

“It’s kind of considered a natural penicillin, like a cure-all,” added Korean-American chef and restaurateur Judy Joo, citing purported benefits from boosting energy to anti-aging to preventing cancer. Combine the two individually curative ingredients, ginseng and chicken soup, and you get a potent package that Joo describes as “extremely rejuvenating and restorative.”

Fresh ginseng. (Shutterstock)

Keeping Cool

Samgyetang is also—perhaps unintuitively, for those of us more accustomed to chill-chasing bowls of chicken noodle soup in the winter—considered a smart way to cool down.

It works by calibrating your body temperature to the outside temperature, Joo explained, an idea that echoes traditional medicinal principles of maintaining a balance between the internal and external. That way, you feel less of a difference in heat: “If you raise the temperature of your body, then the temperature outside won’t feel so hot.”

Then, there’s also the role of sweat to consider. Jung drew a comparison to another “fighting fire with fire” activity to illustrate.

“Have you ever been to a sauna?” she asked with a laugh. It’s common for Koreans, especially of the older generation, to head to the steam rooms to sweat it out even in the summer, she said. Downing a bowl of sweat-inducing samgyetang is kind of the same idea: “When you sweat a lot, you feel refreshed. Your body [feels] cool and calm and refreshed.” 

korean Tender chicken
A filling of sweet, sticky rice perfumed with ginseng, jujube, and garlic is stuffed inside the chicken. (Shutterstock)

Seeking Out Samgyetang

Jung has fond memories of her mother making samgyetang at the peak of summer, to feed her eight-person family.

“At that time, we didn’t have much air conditioning,” she recalled. “My mom [would be] sweating and sweating, and boiling eight [chickens] in one huge pot! Her face would turn red.”

“That,” she added,” is the true love of a mom.”

Now, Jung makes her own samgyetang, offering two tips to other home cooks: use the smallest chicken you can get (they’re typically less than 40 days old); and be sure to thoroughly clean out the cavity, so blood clots and other impurities don’t taint your rice and broth (they’re edible, but not as pretty).

Though sourcing some ingredients may require a special trip to an Asian market or an online purchase, the dish comes together fairly simply. 

Joo likes using dried Korean red ginseng in her samgyetang, for its increased health benefits and stronger medicinal bite, but it can be difficult to find—and expensive to boot. Fresh ginseng is more commonly used and is much cheaper and easier to find. 

To make things even simpler, many Korean markets sell samgyetang packets with all the roots and herbs you need. “That’s the easiest way, and it makes a really great stock,” Jung said.

Even so, Jung noted, these days Koreans are more likely to fulfill their summertime samgyetang needs at a restaurant. In Korea and abroad, there are many restaurants that specialize in samgyetang and serve little else, while restaurants that usually don’t offer the dish may add it to their menus as a seasonal item. 

During boknal, lines at samgyetang restaurants can snake out the door and around the block for hundreds of yards, Jung said—and all in the sweltering sun. To console their patient patrons, some owners might pass around umbrellas and drinks.

People line up outside a samgyetang restaurant in Seoul on malbok, the last of the three hot “dog days” of summer. ( by 2.0)

Back at Hansol in Flushing, the line isn’t quite out the door, but the room is packed and lively. Other steaming pots of soups and stews bubble at the tables around me. 

I turn my attention to my bowl of samgyetang. The whole chicken looks intimidating, but its tender meat comes apart easily with a pair of chopsticks. I dig into the goodies inside: a trove of sweet and chewy sticky rice, each grain slicked with chicken fat and infused with the flavors of the ginseng, jujube, and garlic. (Joo always cooks a separate parcel of sticky rice in the soup, she told me, since “there’s never enough rice inside the chicken.”)

The broth is light and clean, served deliberately under-seasoned. It comes with a little cup of salt and pepper, for diners to add to the broth and dip bites of chicken into based on personal tastes. 

Between bites of rice and chicken and spoonfuls of nourishing broth, the scalding soup is downright refreshing. 

RECIPE: Samgyetang (Magical Chicken Ginseng Soup)