Punxsutawney Phil was right—winter has cast a long shadow this year. Seemingly endless bouts of wind, rain, and sleet have battered these parts in the past weeks and more may still come. The grand illusion of springing forward to daylight time and promising glimpses of early cherry blossoms may help to brighten things up a bit psychologically. But nothing can ward off the chilly effects of a drawn-out winter on one’s body and soul better than a bowl of good chicken soup.
Hearty chicken noodle soup at the Stock Market on Granville Island, dill-garnished chicken soup with matzo balls at Dunn’s Famous, a bubbling hot clay pot of chicken wonton soup at Long’s Noodle House—I’ve been making my rounds. But top on my list is samgyetang (aka sam-gae-tang), or Korean ginseng chicken soup.
It helps that I don’t have to venture far from where I live in the West End to enjoy different versions of this nourishing soup. In recent years, the area near the junction of Robson and Denman streets has become Vancouver’s hub for Korean dining. Near this corner you’ll find a dozen or so restaurants offering a spectrum of Korean cooking to suit all budgets and moods. Missing the late-night alfresco simplicity of a basket of fried chicken and a beer in the heart of Seoul? You can come close at Zabu Chicken. Have a yen for a bulgogi burger and yam fries? Damso Modern Korean Cuisine is where you’ll find it. How about throwing all dietary caution to the wind at Westender Korean Cafe, the Korean-barbecue joint that serves only grilled pork belly? (Actually, if you do it right and wrap the meat in the generous supply of lettuce leaves and add the endless kimchi provided on request, it can be a pretty well-balanced meal.)
But let’s get back to the samgyetang. I had my first taste of this famous Korean soup during a visit to Seoul some years ago. After a long day of roaming the city and the expansive grounds of the Gyeong-bokgung, I happened upon a restaurant housed in a traditional-style building just as dusk gathered and it began to turn cold. The sign over the door advertised samgyetang as its specialty. As I knew that South Korea is the world’s largest exporter of ginseng and was cognizant of the acclaimed herb’s healthful properties, ginseng soup for dinner wasn’t a hard sell. Nor did it disappoint. The young chicken stuffed with glutinous rice, ginkgo nut, chestnut, assorted grains and seeds, and ginseng was served in a stone bowlful of steamy, rich, creamy broth sweetened with jujube (Chinese red date) and seasoned with ginger and garlic. It was delicious and immensely satisfying.
While samgyetang is traditionally eaten during the summer for its detoxifying effects and energy-restoring properties, I found the warm—or yang—nature of Korean ginseng particularly fortifying that night. Since then, samgyetang has become my staple tonic for chasing away the winter blues. Happily, it’s on the menu of some of my favourite Korean restaurants.
At SURA Korean Royal Cuisine (1518 Robson Street), where the spacious room is elegantly partitioned with glass panels and gold brocade drapery, the samgyetang ($20) is served in a stone bowl. The soup itself is thickened with boiled rice and resembles congee. Immersed are a red date, a clove of garlic, and are a small game hen, everything topped with a sprinkling of sliced green onion. The hen isn’t stuffed but is chopstick-tender and only mildly flavoured with the characteristic bitterness of ginseng. Tasty and honest, the soup comes unseasoned, accompanied by a small dish of peppered sea salt so the diner can adjust to taste. Two side dishes (banchan)—soybeans braised in sweet soy sauce, and shredded seaweed salad dressed with sesame oil—and a portion of excellent kimchi complete the picture-perfect presentation.
At Ma Dang Goul (847 Denman Street), a small, rustic neighbourhood restaurant that excels in stews (jeongol) and soups (which, I believe, are two of the best aspects of Korean cookery), the game hen is stuffed with ginseng, jujube, and garlic and comes to the table split open along the spine to allow easy access to the ginseng-infused rice. The soup here is creamy, gelatin-rich from long simmering, yet not at all fatty. The banchan collection includes a bean sprout salad, boiled potatoes, a konjac jelly salad, house-made kimchi, and a bowl of rice, making it an unbeatable full-meal deal for $19.
Regardless of whether you believe that samgyetang can rejuvenate and detoxify, boost your immune system and metabolism, and improve digestion and reduce stress, or what time of year you decide you can benefit from it most (the folks at Jang Mo Jib only serve it in summer), I recommend you try this iconic soup anytime, just because it will be one of the best chicken soups you’ll ever have.