Thoughts on Samgyetang

May 30, 2012

The samgyetang was delivered still-boiling to our table. This famous Korean dish is a ginseng soup with a whole young chicken submerged in the broth. The soup also includes rice, chestnuts, green onions, and a few other ingredients. Each bowl contains a piece of deer antler, which supposedly has many invigorating and curative properties and promotes longevity.

The flesh of the bird is exceptionally tender and falls easily from the bone with the help of your spoon and chopsticks. If you like, you can dip the meat in bamboo salt before eating. Bamboo salt is said to alleviate inflammation, detoxify the liver, promote trustworthy bowel function, and even cure acne. It’s slightly coarser than regular table salt and leaves a brief and pleasant tingling on the tongue.

The belly of the fowl is stuffed with a hardy, purplish rice. As you break apart the bird, the bottom of your bowl becomes thick with rice and meat and vegetables. Each bowl comes with a ladle and a separate, shallower dish into which you can spoon this mixture. This allows your food to cool faster, which is very useful because the broth in the main dish remains almost too hot to consume for most of the meal. All the vegetables in the soup are whole and uncut, as this is thought to better retain their nutritive properties.

If you have the pleasure of trying samgyetang yourself, one thing to watch out for is the presence of a jujube. A jujube looks similar to a large raisin, but it is actually closely related to a date. This means it has a pit. I’ve eaten enough Korean food to know that you should always proceed with caution, so luckily I decided to nibble before crunching down on this mysterious morsel.

The samgyetang was served with an assortment of side dishes including fresh vegetables, radish kimchi (which was so thick that we had to cut it with our table scissors, another uniquely Korean item), a salad with a creamy off-white dressing, and some crisp greens in a red pepper sauce. We had rice tea to drink, as well as a complementary beaker of ginseng wine, which we drank out of miniature shot glasses. The “wine” definitely had the burn and kick of a liquor.

This meal was around $11 each. No tax or tipping in Korea.

The restaurant is a few kilometers outside of Jinju, set in the middle of a verdant wonderland of natural and man-made beauty. After eating, we roamed the grounds looking at the different statues and sculptures. Behind the restaurant is a peaceful lake. A wooden raft with a picnic table floats on the lake, tethered to the shore. There are many cobble-stoned paths to choose from. An empty wooden swing creaks in the wind. West of the restaurant, winding off into the forest, a purling brook.

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