(As told to Sonja Swanson.)
One may think of a steaming bowl of chicken soup as an inherently cold-weather dish, meant to fight colds and warm bones. Not so in Korea, where sweltering summers are met with piping hot chicken soup. It’s a practice called iyeolchiyeol, or “fight heat with heat.” The idea is that sweating will make you feel cooler and restore your strength.
On the boknal, or three hottest days of summer, it’s traditional to eat samgyetang, a hot chicken soup featuring stuffed chickens in an aromatic broth. On these days, lines at the most popular samgyetang restaurants go down the street. Food is medicine in Korea, and samgyetang is meant to help you rebalance your hot and cold energy. It’s also delicious, a fact that holds true any time of year (if samgyetang appeals to you more in colder months, don’t let the idea of iyeolchiyeol stop you).
The ingredients that fill each chicken’s cavity are in large part what give the soup its character: A base of rib-sticking sticky rice surrounds an assortment of jewels, from tender chestnuts and sweet jujubes to silky gingko nuts, medicinal ginseng, and funky garlic. Growing up, my mom cooked for a family of eight, and I remember her stuffing eight little chickens into a huge pot for all of us.
You can also find prepackaged samgyetang herb packets in most Korean grocery stores. Use the ginseng, jujubes, and chestnuts for stuffing inside the chicken, and put the other aromatics in the broth.
The stuffing procedure isn’t difficult, but may feel clumsy at first. The sticky rice and other ingredients are added in alternating layers until the cavity is jam-packed.
The stuffing ingredients can spill out of the cavity opening, so to keep it in the chicken where it belongs, it helps to truss the birds. You can do this without any string at all: Just cut small slits in the skin on either side of the cavity, then cross the drumsticks, inserting their ends through those slits.
On top of that, the broth is infused with both the fragrance of the chickens and additional herbal ingredients like dried milk vetch root and prickly castor-oil tree bark. You may not always be able to find all of these ingredients, even in Korean markets, but just work with what you can get and it’ll turn out great.
When selecting your chicken, try to get smaller birds that weigh around 14 ounces (400g) each. We call these birds yeonggye in Korea, but a small chicken like a Cornish hen will also do.
If there’s one tip I want to emphasize about samgyetang, it’s this: Make sure you thoroughly clean out any blood clots from inside the chicken. Part of samgyetang’s appeal is the lovely white sticky rice that cooks inside the chicken. While those dark red bits of cooked blood are edible, they stain the rice and ruin the visual appeal. So make sure you really get between the ribs inside while rinsing the chicken under cold running water (and watch out for any sharp, pointy bones that might poke your fingers while you’re digging around in there).
I recommend using a large, heavy pot for cooking, but if you’re short on time, a pressure cooker will reduce cooking times by about half. All in all, this recipe is pretty straightforward. It just requires some patience, so make sure you’ve set aside enough time to do it.
For serving, any large bowl will do, but I recommend an earthenware pot (ttukbaegi) for each chicken, since it retains heat well. Typically, each person gets their own small chicken and ttukbaegi, but larger birds in bigger pots are good for sharing. One of the unique things about Korean cooking is that the eaters are often trusted to do their own seasoning; the broth is served under-seasoned on purpose. I like to offer extra green onions on the side, along with a dish containing a mixture of salt, pepper, and ground sesame seeds, so everyone can season their samgyetang just how they like it. Don’t forget to have a side of kimchi ready, too—there’s no better way to get a cooling sweat really going than the one-two punch of hot and spicy food.
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