Korean Recipe: Samgyetang (Ginseng Chicken Soup)
On Sunday, June 28, at 2 p.m., please join us for Samgyetang: Korean Ginseng Chicken Soup Across Generations, featuring Yesoon and Danny Lee of Mandu Restaurant in Washington, D.C. This 2021 Folklife Festival event is part of our larger American Ginseng: Local Knowledge, Global Roots project.
On a rainy May morning, a limited number of the Folklife film crew descended upon Mandu on K Street NW in Washington, D.C., to document the making of and the stories behind samgyetang (삼계탕, ginseng chicken soup). Encouraged by her daughter, Yesoon Lee and her son Danny Lee opened Mandu, heralded as the first Korean restaurant in D.C., in 2006.
Samgyetang—sam (삼, ginseng), gye (계, chicken) tang (탕, soup)—is a small chicken stuffed with sweet glutinous rice, ginseng root, and garlic, cooked in an herbal broth. It is a comforting dish, eaten at all times of the year, but especially during Sambok (삼복), three days during the hottest period of summer, when it paradoxically provides a cooling effect. Sam (삼) in this case means “three,” and the dates of Chobok (초복), Jungbok (중복), and Malbok (말복) are determined by the lunar calendar each year.
In Korean, there is a saying, i-yeol-chi-yeol (이열치열), which means “to beat the heat with heat.” So the masses consuming piping hot chicken soup during the height of summer is just a way of life.
This is a one-chicken-per-person kind of dish, so Cornish game hens are commonly used in the United States, but in Korea, it is made with small, young chickens. The seasoned cavity is stuffed with pre-soaked sweet rice, garlic, and ginseng*, then sealed, while the rest of the aromatics swim around in the broth.
A “samgyetang herb mix” is easily purchased online or at your local Korean grocery store**. The herb mixes themselves vary by brand, but in general contain huangqi (황기, astragalus root, or milk vetch) and eom namu (음나무, kalopanax, or prickly castor oil tree). Samgyetang can be ￼made without the additional herb mix, but modern consumers know the dish for its herbal and comforting medicinal taste. The end result is a tender chicken in a flavorful broth, begging to be eaten on a sultry day with some insamju (인삼주, ginseng liquor) on the side.
At Mandu, our COVID-limited team dug gleefully into the tiny bird, sneaking bites under our masks, away from each other. Eating the resulting food has always been a highlight of any food filming, made more significant after hearing the deeply personally stories that accompany the dishes. For our small team, however, that day in May meant more than delicious food.
It was the first time in over a year that we had seen each other in person, or even met in real life. It was, in my personal experience, the first all-Asian American team I had worked with in this job. Not only that, but we were also featuring an Asian American story, something I had never been able to tell in my professional career. After months (years, really) of increased anti-Asian racism and violence everywhere, the catharsis of representation brought to surface many still indecipherable emotions for me. But luckily for me, I found some comfort in a bowl of ginseng chicken soup.
Notes from the test kitchen: The below recipe is for one chicken, usually meant for one person. The recipe can be easily increased for multiple servings, but do not double the herb mixture if using.
*There are multiple ways to prepare this dish. The below recipe has the ginseng outside of the chicken, but during our filming with Yesoon, she placed the ginseng inside.
**Advanced cooks with more language and herbal knowledge can also purchase the herbs separately at most East Asian grocery store or herbalist shops.
Samgyetang (Korean Ginseng Chicken Soup)
By Yesoon Lee, Mandu Restaurant
1 Cornish hen
1/4 cup sweet rice
6 cloves whole garlic
1 ginseng root, fresh or dried
2 jujubes, dried
2 slices ginger, one inch thick
4-5 cups water or chicken stock
Samgyetang dry herb mix (optional, use according to package)
Salt and pepper to taste
Scallions, chopped, for garnish
Soak the sweet rice in cold water for at least one hour, then strain.
Thoroughly rinse the Cornish hen with cold running water. Pat dry the exterior and the cavity of the hen with paper towels.
Liberally season the cavity of the hen with salt and pepper. Carefully place half of the strained sweet rice inside the cavity of the hen. Stuff 3-4 garlic cloves into the rice inside the cavity. Close the cavity by using toothpicks or skewers to fold the skin over the cavity and connect to the other side.
Place the hen into a wide soup pot so it has plenty of room. Fill the pot with enough chicken stock or water to cover the hen.
Add the remaining garlic cloves, ginseng root, ginger slices, jujubes, and optional dry herb mix to the pot. Place on high heat and bring to a boil, and then lower to medium heat. Skim off the foam and discard, simmer, and cover for 20 minutes.
Lower heat to medium low, keep covered, and continue cooking for another 45 minutes.
Turn off heat, and leave covered in pot for another 10-15 minutes.
Season broth with salt and pepper to taste. Serve garnished with chopped scallions, with salt and pepper on the side.
Kathy Phung is the foodways coordinator for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and the demonstration kitchen manager at the National Museum of American History. Armed with a degree in anthropology and baking and pastry arts, she has worked in various food enterprises in the D.C. area as an oompa loompa, pastry cook, and butcher.