An entire chicken immersed in a soup?! That’s the essence of this timeless and beloved Korean dish. It’s a wonderfully aromatic and satisfying meal that can be enjoyed all year round, but particularly during the hot summer months.
Korean Samgyetang is an extraordinary soup. It embodies a floral, earthy, and subtly unfamiliar taste of ginseng that permeates every corner of this nourishing and rejuvenating bowl of goodness. If you were to ask me to describe its flavor accurately, I wouldn’t have the words, but regardless, it is supremely delicious.
My first encounter with the delights of Samgyetang was in LA’s Koreatown on a scorching summer day, nursing a memorable hangover. The waiter at the Korean restaurant we chose assured me that THIS soup was the only remedy I needed for a day like this, and I am grateful that I trusted his recommendation.
Samgyetang is distinctive in many ways, particularly with the arrival of a whole miniature chicken immersed within it. However, the taste is enchanting—a fusion of unfamiliar, fragrant, and comforting flavors. It’s a harmonious blend of herbal and meaty elements that tantalizes the palate, leaving behind a plethora of questions.
Through further exploration and numerous attempts at recreating it at home, I am finally uncovering the secrets that make Samgyetang so extraordinary!
The Origins of Samgyetang (Chicken Ginseng Soup)
Samgyetang is a soup that consists of chicken, rice, and a blend of herbal ingredients, with one notable addition being ginseng.
Ginseng is derived from the root of the Panax plant. Its botanical name, Panax, translates to “all healing” in Greek, but it is primarily in Asia, particularly in China and Korea, where it has been used in traditional medicine for centuries. Ginseng is not only utilized in medicinal remedies but also as a culinary ingredient.
Ginseng chicken soup is reputed to have numerous health benefits. It is said to boost energy, regulate blood sugar levels in individuals with diabetes, promote heart health, aid in cancer prevention, alleviate symptoms of cold and flu, and is even believed to possess potent aphrodisiac properties. It truly qualifies as a superfood!
Samgyetang incorporates a variety of unfamiliar ingredients. However, the good news is that if you find the right store, you can purchase specially curated Samgyetang soup starters. To the untrained eye, these starters may appear to contain an assortment of twigs, wood chippings, and branches, but each element contributes its own unique character, resulting in an incredible and flavorful soup.
Suggest a summer cooling soup
Interestingly, Samgyetang is a soup consumed in the summer months. While many people typically associate hearty chicken soup with winter, Koreans enjoy Samgyetang during the three hottest periods of the year, known as ‘sambok,’ which occur at the beginning, middle, and end of summer. They believe in combating heat with heat! This hot and hearty soup serves as the perfect weapon in their battle against the scorching temperatures.
The Ingredients of Samgyetang (Chicken Ginseng Soup)
To prepare samgyetang at home, you will need a specific set of ingredients. If you’re fortunate enough to have a Korean store nearby, you can find many of these ingredients there. However, you can also purchase everything online without any difficulty.
- Cornish hens: These small chickens are readily available in Asian supermarkets.
- Rice: I recommend using Calrose rice, as its shorter grain works well for this soup. Glutinous rice can also be used as an alternative.
- Garlic: Koreans have a penchant for garlic, and it adds a wonderful flavor when stuffed into the chicken. It becomes creamy and mellow, infusing the rice and broth with a delightful taste.
- Samgyetang Soup Kit: Pre-assembled samgyetang soup kits are easily found in Korean and Chinese stores. If you can’t find them locally, don’t worry, they are readily available online.
- Spring onion/scallion: This ingredient adds its unique and fragrant onion flavor to the soup towards the end.
- Spice bag: It’s advisable to acquire spice bags that can hold all the samgyetang spices. This makes it much easier to discard them later.
Step by Step
Step 1: Rinse the rice and let it soak for an hour to reduce excessive starch leaching into the soup.
Step 2: Place all the samgyetang roots, twigs, and dried fruit into a large spice bag or alternatively, strain the broth later to remove them.
Step 3: Put the spice bag in a large pot, cover it with water, and bring it to a boil. Simmer for a while to extract the flavors.
Step 4: Fill the chicken with garlic cloves and rice.
Step 5: Make a few incisions around the drumsticks to secure the legs or tie them together using kitchen string.
Step 6: Place the chickens in the liquid and poach them for 90 minutes.
Step 7: In the meantime, prepare the dipping sauce by whisking together all the ingredients.
Step 8: Remove each chicken from the pot and discard the spice bag, or strain the broth using a fine sieve to remove any solids.
Step 9: Place a chicken in a bowl, sprinkle a little salt and pepper, and garnish with spring onions/scallions. Serve hot with the dipping sauce on the side.
Tips for making samgyetang
- Purchase a ready-made Samgyetang soup starter kit – At first, I tried to buy the soup ingredients individually, but my experience at the local Korean supermarket took an interesting turn when a kind elderly Korean lady took notice of my quest. She enthusiastically guided me towards a simpler solution: ready-to-use soup kits. Not only were they less perplexing, but they also turned out to be more cost-effective!
- Rinse and soak the rice: Prior to cooking, make sure to rinse and soak the rice. Excessive starch can lead to a cloudy soup and potentially affect the flavor.
- Use a spice bag: Place all the soup ingredients in a large spice bag. This will make it easy to remove them once they have infused their flavors into the soup.
- Secure the chicken legs: I discovered a simple technique of creating small incisions in the chicken, allowing the drumsticks to be securely held in place (refer to the how-to section and video for more details). Alternatively, you can use kitchen string to tie the legs together. If the legs open during cooking, it’s not a problem as the rice should mostly stay in place.
Suggestions for serving and storage
- Dipping Sauce: I recommend serving the soup with a simple dipping sauce made of pepper, soy sauce, and sesame. It adds a magnificent touch when you dip the juicy chicken into it, providing a savory, nutty, and umami burst of flavor that complements the fragrant soup.
- Side of Kimchi: Alternatively, you can serve samgyetang soup with a small side dish of kimchi instead of the dipping sauce.
- Refrigeration: You can prepare the soup in advance and store it in the refrigerator until needed. Make sure to cover the chickens to prevent them from drying out. When you’re ready to enjoy, be sure to reheat the soup and chickens until they are piping hot. Remember, the essence of this soup is to combat heat with heat, so serving it hot is ideal.
- Freezing: While I haven’t personally frozen samgyetang before, it is possible. However, I recommend consuming it fresh for the best taste and texture.
Are you ready to start cooking?
No matter the weather conditions, and particularly if you’re feeling unwell, Samgyetang (Ginseng chicken soup) is the ultimate remedy for happiness. I prepare it once or twice a year, and it never fails to deliver. Plus, it’s a straightforward soup to assemble once you gather all the necessary ingredients!
Quick and Delicious: Korean Samgyetang (Ginseng Chicken Soup) Recipe Tutorial
- 2 Cornish hens (or Poussin chicken)
- ½ cup Calrose rice (or glutinous rice)
- 8 garlic cloves (peeled, whole)
- 1 samgyetang soup kit (includes all the necessary spices and herbs)
- 1 spice bag (optional)
- 2 tsp salt
- 2 spring onions (finely sliced)
For the dipping sauce:
- 1 tbsp salt
- ½ tsp white pepper
- 2 tbsp sesame oil
- 2 tsp light soy sauce
- 1 tsp toasted sesame seeds
- Rinse the rice in cold water in a bowl and drain it a few times until the water runs clear. Refill the bowl with cold water and soak the rice for one hour. Drain the rice and set it aside.
- Remove any giblets from the Cornish hens and save them for making stock.
- Trim some of the fat from around the cavity of the hens using scissors.
- Place 4 cloves of garlic into the cavity of each hen, then fill the cavity with rice until it’s about ¾ full. Repeat the same process for the other hen.
- Using a sharp knife, pierce the skin on the left and right sides of the cavity. Carefully insert a drumstick into the opposite slit, for example, place the right drumstick into the left hole and the left drumstick into the right hole. This will help seal the cavity. Alternatively, you can use a toothpick to seal it.
- Place the hens in a pan that is large enough to fit them snugly. Add about 9 cups of water and the salt.
- Add the soup kit ingredients, bring to a boil, then simmer with the lid on for 1 hour. Using a spice bag is optional for easy removal.
Prepare the dipping sauce while the chicken cooks.
- In a separate bowl, combine the salt, white pepper, sesame oil, and toasted sesame seeds. Set the dipping sauce aside.
Finishing the soup
- Once the chicken is cooked, remove the pan from the heat. Carefully take out each Cornish hen and set them aside.
- Remove the spice bag (if used) or use a slotted spoon to remove all the soup kit ingredients from the broth.
- Place a hen in each Asian soup bowl and pour hot broth over them. Sprinkle with spring onion and serve with the dipping sauce on the side.
If you have leftover broth, you can easily enhance it by poaching a chicken breast and shredding it into strands to add. Alternatively, you can use leftover roast chicken as an additional ingredient to enrich the broth.