Incorporating a variety of medicinal ingredients such as ginseng, jujubes, hemp, sanghwang mushroom and perilla seeds, samgye-tang (ginseng chicken soup) has been considered a quintessential summer energy boost in Korea since the early-mid 1900’s. While the tradition of consuming such a steaming bowl of soup during the hottest months of the year may come as a surprise to some, the nutrition and detoxification benefits offered by the main ingredients of the dish are indeed particularly relevant to some of the common summer ailments, such as hay fever and bacterial infections. Evident in a number of ancient texts including Shennong Bencaojing (The Classic of Herbal Medicine), a Chinese manual of pharmacology written between 200 and 250 A.D., the complex aromas of the medicinal herbs and veggies are what transform a rich chicken broth into pleasantly sweet, nutty and tangy goodness that you can’t pass up on. Healthy and naturally remedial, the traditional ginseng chicken soup offers such a comforting hug in a bowl. Check out our list of samgye-tang joints for your next culinary search in Seoul.
Nowhere else in the world can you find a yellow-brothed samgye-tang, which traditionally comes with a clear broth. The broth is made by boiling sanghwang mushroom, a medicinal variety which gives it its unique color and scent, along with a traditional herbal mix, including hemp and jujubes (the owner wouldn’t let us know the rest of the recipe). After the broth is made, no more than twenty-five of a special breed of chickens is boiled at the same time. The smaller batch allows the collagen of the chicken to thicken the broth. Thanks to the special (and secret) combination of ingredients used to create the broth, many customers end up emptying their bowl. Gobong has been featured on the Michelin Korea guide, so there may be a crowd.
Walk past the Namyeong Station in Yongsan into a small alleyway and you’ll see a hanok (traditional Korean house)—or just look for a house that stands out from the rest. It is at this 100-year-old house that Gangwonjung set up shop to serve its signature samgye-tang all year-round. Founded in 1978, the restaurant is now owned by Ham Ho-sik, the son of the founder. The quality of the samgye-tang is definitely one of the main reasons the restaurant has stayed open for 39 years. The commitment of the restaurant can be felt in a single bowl: using domestic poultry that is more fully grown than other restaurants, the broth is boiled for up to two hours to create a rich flavor. Be sure you get your fill for lunch or dinner (there is a break between three and five o’clock in the afternoon).
Tosokchon's samgyetang sets itself apart in that their broth is much thicker and richer in flavor compared to the usual bowl you'd get in Seoul. It's something they’ve mastered after 30 years of making this dish, using 30 different types of medicinal and herbal ingredients including four-year-old ginseng, pumpkin seeds, black sesame, pine nuts, ginkgo nuts, sunflower seeds as well as three secret ingredients that they wouldn't disclose. The main ingredient, poultry, is sourced from the owners' own farm. Cooked to perfection, the chicken's so tender that it doesn't require a lot of chewing at all. The bowl doesn’t really require additional seasoning as it's already savory enough when served. But make sure to pour in the aperitif drink offered with the dish—it's a ritual to "fight fire with [more] fire."