Savoring Samgyetang

Soup + banchan = Korean comfort

There are three things I crave when the weather is as cold as its been this week in Chicago:


1. Matzo ball soup, to satisfy my inner child.

2. Pho, to provide not only a steaming, clove/cinnamon/star anise facial, but also a beefy broth with vermicelli noodles.

3. Samgyetang, to actually make me feel better.


This Korean staple, translated as “ginseng chicken soup,” has been the featured item at Ssyal Ginseng House in the Mayfair neighborhood, on Chicago’s far Northwest Side, for more than 20 years. I just happened to stop in for lunch yesterday, and noticed they’ve done a complete remodel, pitching the sorry-looking ferns and Korean Air calendars (and that hideous carpet) and really cleaned the place up. You can still buy ginseng root here, noted for its inherent health properties, but you can also get it hidden in a large bowl of chicken broth – the bathtub for a whole cornish hen that’s been poached until it’s as soft as Charmin with a pair of jujubes (red dates), some sweet rice and fresh garlic.


I love tearing up the bird, tossing the bones in a convenient bowl off to the side, then digging into the fiery kimchi and banchan assortment. They make both a Napa cabbage as well as a daikon radish kimchi, plus a couple of other items like baby bok choy tossed with gochujang (fermented chili, rice and soybeans) and scallion, as well as a trio of fried tofu and a sweet-spicy dish of gochujang-laced ginseng root; I really dug the inky black seaweed which offered loads of umami.


Small dishes of salt are offered to taste, as well as some freshly-chopped scallions, in case you want to toss those into the soup as well. A side bowl of nutty, mixed grains and rice offer a starchy contrast, and help to soak up some of the chili heat. The combo of the salty, soothing broth, the poached hen, that lovely little piece of ginseng and all of that fermented cabbage and radish doing a number on my system is just what the doctor (or my unofficial Korean grandmother) ordered on a frigid day.