A Tale Of a Changed Mind. And a Burnt Tongue.

This week I continue the posts on our recent South Korean trip. SO MUCH FOOD!

Stuffed and sated without the ability to eat even one more bite – or so I thought – we headed to Hwang Hu Sam Gye Tang restaurant to experience Samgyetang, a hot bowl of bubbling chicken soup made with one very important ingredient: ginseng.

Ushered upstairs to the second floor of this elegant and glistening airy restaurant, we were seated next to a vast window overlooking a rainy busy side street below. We passed walls that were lined with photographs of celebrity and everyday patrons, leaving the menu to appear even that much more sparse. Hwang Hu Sam Gye Tang doesn’t offer too many things other than chicken and ginseng soup, a fact I’d later forget about once the scorching hot liquid touched my tongue.

The chef and host suggested that they bring our food to the table before cooking purely for photographic purposes. “Please, do not go through any trouble” I said to our guide, watching my translated words make their way to the chef. The chef wouldn’t have it any other way, his face said everything I needed to know. Once a boiling hot soup is brought to our table I would see none of the ingredients; steam and bubbles would make sure of that. I acquiesced and like a good guest I let them set out bowls of food to photograph.

A traditional Korean cast iron bowl was set before me and my camera, filled with a straw-colored pale broth and strips of green leeks resting on top of stark white chicken, skin attached. The bowl of soup clearly doubled as an optical illusion. Inside the innocuous yellow liquid would be the flavor of a thousand chicken soups, purely a contradiction to a person who always thought soup needs to be dark, unctuous and forever cooked to coax out such rich flavors.

The uncooked soup bowl was returned to the kitchen to be cooked as we drank beer and had a quick lesson in pronunciation. When the soup made its way back to the table it was alive and bubbling with frenetic energy, leaving me to wonder if Koreans are the only people on the planet that put their tongues in such obvious jeopardy. “Wimp,” I muttered to myself as I used a spoon to cut open the young tender chicken to reveal the jujube and tender chestnut that had been cooked inside the bird. As I broke the chicken apart I noticed my hand became wet with steam at the same time the smell of the soup reached my nose. Earthy. Hot. Ginsengy. But not in a walked-into-a-dusty-medicine-shop kind of way; rather an exciting, fragrant, tasty kind of way that reinvigorated my appetite almost immediately.

I have never loved chicken soup, mothers and folklore be damned. Too thin for my tastes, the idea of clear broth cooking rubbery chicken with swollen skin never appealed to me. Where was the char, the crunch, the browning, the culinary processes that occur in other stews, soups, and braises I adore so much? Besides, if we are to enjoy a soup when we are feeble and infirmed then what does this say about the soup? Exactly.

Samgyetang was bubbling in front of me, provoking me to change my mind about chicken soup. It succeeded. It was exciting, rich, layered with flavor and depth I’ve never experienced from a pale broth. To eat it you’d pluck pieces of chicken out of the atomic caldron and place in a small individual bowl, topping with broth and a sprinkle of coarse salt. My notions of chicken soup disappeared as I placed the empty bones into a small container. The cooked jujube, eaten with broth, reminded me of prunes slow roasted with chicken, the chestnut lent a potato-y taste and texture as well. The chicken? It couldn’t have been better– tender and beyond delicious. The entire dish was exotic and Asian while simultaneously familiar and perfect. I continued to slurp and eat this tender white chicken and leeks, my mouth happily filled with ginseng broth, until there was no more left. I could have easily done it over and over again.

 Next up: A visit to the fish market in Busan.





  1. says

    Glad you find ‘the’ soup for you…I still love my homegrown chicken soup but then there is nothing pale or watery about it either!

    Does it become too redundant to say, ‘love your photos’ Matt? Because I do.

  2. Matt says

    Barbara, I think I need to try some of yours! :) And about the photos, thank you thank you thank you. I’m honored!

  3. says

    Love, love, love samgyetang! The flavors are so incredible and I love it when a simple broth becomes that complex. Unfortunately, I’ve only tried it here in the States, but I know what I’m looking for if I ever find myself in South Korea.

  4. says

    This Samgyetang sounds more like chicken stew to me (good), rather chicken soup per se (bad). Regarding which, I wholeheartedly subscribe to your distaste of. Mothers and folklore will pardon my French, but conventional chicken soup is just not yummy >_<

  5. Sarah Yoo says

    This is one of my favorite memories as a kid trying this dish in the countryside in South Korea. Your photos are beautiful!

  6. says

    What can I say, coming from the perspective of a Kosher blogger? Any chicken soup I have ever loved is loaded with veggies, herbs and sometimes unexpected flavors , like ginger and garlic , added for additional healing powers. Happy to give you a taste ANY TIME!

  7. says

    So glad the soup hit the spot and that you slurped in happy contentment :)

    And I just want to tell you that I have seen your work/pics for Jenny’s book and Gaby’s website for the pottery..and once again, your photography, Matt, is just…to die for amazing, spectacular and just out of this world.

    The day I spent with you and Adam shaped and changed me in profound ways. Thank you for that gift beyond words :)

  8. says

    Oh no! I’m so sad to hear you don’t like chicken soup. I think it’s either cultural or regional. I make the typical “Kosher Penicillin” and love love love it. I have added cream to it a couple of times which is a downright sacrilege, but I had to try it. It’s good, but it’s not the comfort food — to me — that “chicken in a pot” is. I always have a batch in the freezer because you just never know when you are going to need it for soup or as a stock for other recipes. And as I’ve written countless times on my blogs, I keep it in the freezer along with Saltines, Ginger Ale and Jell-O in the pantry to ward off those evil germs that may be lurking.

    Yep, neurotic Jewish woman here. I tuck into a bowl of steaming chicken soup when I’m feeling blue and love it as a base for Wonton Soup, Pho or even as a starting place for Tortilla Soup.

    But a big post of chicken soup that’s been simmering for hours, until the stock is gelatinous the next day after cooling, with a nice slick of chicken fat on top is what makes me happy. I use the fat for my matzo balls and all is right with the world.

    On the other hand, I would love to dive into the soup you are talking about — right now!

    As always, your photos are beautiful and your story fun and engaging. It brings me right to Korea, which is a good thing. A very, very good thing. Thanks!

  9. says

    Wow man!!! Awesome article! My memories of Seoul came flooding back when I read about the Samgyetang! What a dish!!! Can’t wait to go visit again! (My mouth is watering for some Samgyetang.)

  10. says

    I was referred to this blog because I was told the photography was good! It is Great! Really makes you want to get the same results.

  11. carmilita riveral says

    Ran across your site via Twitter. After reading your article on the Korean chicken stew with ginseng, I just have to follow you. Makes my mouth water. Love your pictures too. Godspeed!

  12. carmilita riveral says

    Ran across your site via Twitter. After reading your article on the Korean chicken stew with ginseng, I just have to follow you. Makes my mouth water. Love your pictures too. Godspeed!

  13. carmilita riveral says

    Ran across your site via Twitter. After reading your article on the Korean chicken stew with ginseng, I just have to follow you. Makes my mouth water. Love your pictures too. Godspeed!

  14. carmilita riveral says

    Ran across your site via Twitter. After reading your article on the Korean chicken stew with ginseng, I just have to follow you. Makes my mouth water. Love your pictures too. Godspeed!

  15. says

    Since my travel budget is now devoted to tuition payments I love being able to travel vicariously through your posts!!
    And… not to be “redundant” but I agree with Barb!!!

  16. says

    Hooray, I’m so excited about your Korea trip! I just moved to Korea (my motherland) last month; you’ve been much more adventurous than I have. Love the photos!

  17. Nina says

    I love this, i love this soup… I use to get so excited as a child when my granny made it and yes i would eat the entire baby chicken, to myself, how could you not?
    All the way from Sydney were foodaholics and bloggers are in abundance, your blog is so nice to view/read and salivate over. Thankyou

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