**Last updated on: 15 October 2020**
What do you eat or drink when the weather is very hot? Ice cream, fresh cool vegetable and/or fruit salad, iced cold drinks…you will definitely want something cool or even cold. However, for the Koreans, on the hottest days of the year, they eat something served in sizzling hot pot – it’s samgyetang (삼계탕 – ginseng chicken soup), one of the must-eat Korean cuisine not only for Koreans but also for foreigners. Let’s talk about samgyetang in this blog post.
What is Samgyetang?
You can already tell the key ingredients of the dish by its name – “sam” literally means “ginseng”, “gye” means “chicken” and “tang” means soup. So, this dish is a soup made from ginseng and chicken as the key ingredients. The way of making it is first stuffing the cavity of a whole spring chicken (which is about 3 to 6 months old and has not laid any eggs) with ginseng, hedysarum root, jujubes, garlic, ginger and glutinous rice, then tying the legs of the chicken together to prevent the stuffing from falling out and then boiling it a stone pot or an earthenware bowl for about an hour. It is served with a sizzling hot pot and in some restaurants, a small glass of complimentary ginseng wine may also be served. You can either drink the ginseng wine or pour it into the soup to strengthen the ginseng taste. Some restaurants also provide plain noodles which can be put into the soup to absorb the soup and then be eaten. If you find the taste of samgyetang a bit plain, you may also add some salt and/or pepper before eating.
Traditionally, samgyetang is considered as a “mother-in-law” cuisine because in the old days, it was customary for the mother-in-law to kill one of her back-yard chickens to make samgyetang for her son-in-law who visited her. Therefore, to the Koreans, samgyetang is a cuisine filled with mother’s love.
Nowadays, there are modern versions of samgyetang. For example, there is samgyetang which uses ingredients such as deer antler chips, chestnuts, pine nuts, whole abalones with shells, and/or whole ginseng roots. Medicinal samgyetang which uses oriental herbal medicine and seafood samgyetang which contains baby octopus and blue crabs can also be found.
Why do the Koreans Eat Hot Samgyetang in Summer?
According to oriental medicinal theory, blood circulates near the skin to cool the body in the hot summer days, resulting in poor blood circulation in the internal organs which in turn leads to internal organs remaining cold. As a result, people may have poor appetite and feel exhausted. So, it is believed that eating nutritious hot dishes like samgyetang can increase the blood circulation in the internal organs and help restore appetite and energy. Moreover, body heat can be lowered through sweating after eating the hot samgyetang.
According to the Dongui Bogam (동의보감 – Encyclopedia of Oriental Medicine), samgyetang contains the following healthy ingredients which are good for the body and the warm ingredients are balanced out by the cold ingredients to create a synergy:
- Chicken is a warm food which warms the stomach and pancreas and strengthens the five major organs (i.e., heart, liver, spleen, lungs and kidney);
- Jujubes are a warm food which neutralizes poisons and strengthens the digestive system to help organs function and blood circulation;
- Garlic is spicy and warm – it helps blood circulation and detoxifies and sterilizes the body;
- Ginseng is a well-known medicinal herb – it is a warm food which provides nutrients, speeds up metabolism of the body and helps restore energy to the body; and
- Glutinous rice is cold in nature and tastes sweet – it strengthens the digestive system and provides energy.
Therefore, Koreans like to eat samgyetang during “sambok”. “Sambok” (삼복 – literally means “the three ‘bok’ days”) is a concept introduced to Korea from China and refers to the three hottest days of the year, namely, Chobok (초복 – beginning ‘bok’ day), Jungbok (중복 – middle ‘bok’ day), and Malbok (말복 – last ‘bok’ day). “Bok” means “a day when the ‘yin’ energy falls prostrate before the soaring ‘yang’ energy”. Sambok falls on the 10th day (i.e., chobok) and 20th day (i.e., jungbok) of the sixth month and the 10th day (i.e., malbok) of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. You can often find long queues of people in front of restaurants offering samgyetang during sambok.
Making Your Own Samgyetang
If you want to make samgyetang at home, you can refer to this recipe or this video to learn how to make it. If you want a quicker solution, you can buy ready-to-cook samgyetang instant packages (with all the requisite ingredients prepared for you) being sold in the supermarkets in South Korea or even in overseas countries like Hong Kong. You just need to boil or microwave the content of the instant package to make samgyetang.
During sambok this year, don’t forget to try the samgyetang to see if it can really help provide energy to yourself during the hot summer days. Happy eating and stay healthy! 🙂
Reminder: The next blog post will be published on 21 April 2015. Watch this space!
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Ro Hyo-sun, “Samgyetang (ginseng chicken soup)“, The Korea Herald, 2014-08-29
Arirang TV, “Tales of Hansik – Samgyetang, a restorative food“, Arirang Culture, 2013-09-25
Arirang TV, “Samgyetang“, 100 Icons of Korean Culture, 2013-08-24
이해영, 김은영, 신경선, 주은경, 이정란, 이현의, 《생활 속 한국 문화77》, 서울: 랭기지플러스<한글파크>, 2011, 126-127쪽
“Why samgyetang is good for you on hot summer days“, The Chosun Ilbo, 2010-07-20
Jingi Cheon (ed.), Encyclopedia of Korean Seasonal Customs, Seoul: The National Folk Museum of Korea, 2010-06-30, pp. 183-186
Professor Yoon Sook-ja, “Samgyetang: Chicken broth with ginseng“, Korea Tourism Organization