Why It Works
- Soaking the rice hydrates it, ensuring it fully cooks through inside the birds.
- Trussing the bird (without string) keeps the cavity closed and improves presentation.
- The soup is deliberately left unseasoned, allowing diners to season to taste at the table.
The recipe and introductory material are by Korean chef Seoyoung Jung, as told to her collaborator, writer Sonja Swanson.
One may think of a steaming bowl of chicken soup as an inherently cold-weather dish, meant to fight colds and warm bones. Not so in Korea, where sweltering summers are met with piping hot chicken soup. It’s a practice called iyeolchiyeol, or “fight heat with heat.” The idea is that sweating will make you feel cooler and restore your strength.
On the boknal, or three hottest days of summer, it’s traditional to eat samgyetang, a hot chicken soup featuring stuffed chickens in an aromatic broth. On these days, lines at the most popular samgyetang restaurants go down the street. Food is medicine in Korea, and samgyetang is meant to help you rebalance your hot and cold energy. It’s also delicious, a fact that holds true any time of year (if samgyetang appeals to you more in colder months, don't let the idea of iyeolchiyeol stop you).
The ingredients that fill each chicken's cavity are in large part what give the soup its character: A base of rib-sticking sticky rice surrounds an assortment of jewels, from tender chestnuts and sweet jujubes to silky gingko nuts, medicinal ginseng, and funky garlic. When I was growing up, my mom cooked for a family of eight, and I remember her stuffing eight little chickens into a huge pot for all of us.
You can also find prepackaged samgyetang herb packets in most Korean grocery stores. Use the ginseng, jujubes, and chestnuts for stuffing inside the chicken, and put the other aromatics in the broth.
The stuffing procedure isn't difficult, but may feel clumsy at first. The sticky rice and other ingredients are added in alternating layers until the cavity is jam-packed.
The stuffing ingredients can spill out of the cavity opening, so to keep it in the chicken where it belongs, it helps to truss the birds. You can do this without any string at all: Just cut small slits in the skin on either side of the cavity, then cross the drumsticks, inserting their ends through those slits.
On top of that, the broth is infused with both the fragrance of the chickens and additional herbal ingredients like dried milk vetch root and prickly castor-oil tree bark. You may not always be able to find all of these ingredients, even in Korean markets, but just work with what you can get and it'll turn out great.
When selecting your chicken, try to get smaller birds that weigh around 14 ounces (400g) each. We call these birds yeonggye in Korea, but a small chicken like a Cornish hen will also do.
If there’s one tip I want to emphasize about samgyetang, it’s this: Make sure you thoroughly clean out any blood clots from inside the chicken. Part of samgyetang’s appeal is the lovely white sticky rice that cooks inside the chicken. While those dark red bits of cooked blood are edible, they stain the rice and ruin the visual appeal. So make sure you really get between the ribs inside while rinsing the chicken under cold running water (and watch out for any sharp, pointy bones that might poke your fingers while you're digging around in there).
I recommend using a large, heavy pot for cooking, but if you’re short on time, a pressure cooker will reduce cooking times by about half. All in all, this recipe is pretty straightforward. It just requires some patience, so make sure you've set aside enough time to do it.
For serving, any large bowl will do, but I recommend an earthenware pot (ttukbaegi) for each chicken, since it retains heat well. Typically, each person gets their own small chicken and ttukbaegi, but larger birds in bigger pots are good for sharing. One of the unique things about Korean cooking is that the eaters are often trusted to do their own seasoning; the broth is served under-seasoned on purpose. I like to offer extra green onions on the side, along with a dish containing a mixture of salt, pepper, and ground sesame seeds, so everyone can season their samgyetang just how they like it. Don’t forget to have a side of kimchi ready, too—there's no better way to get a cooling sweat really going than the one-two punch of hot and spicy food.
1 cup sticky rice (7 ounces; 200g)
1 piece hwanggi (황기 or milk vetch root; about 1/3 ounce; 10g), see notes
1 piece eomnamu (엄나무 or prickly castor-oil tree bark), see notes
2 small young chickens or Cornish hens (about 14 ounces; 400g each)
6 small (about 1 inch in length) or 4 large (about 2 inches in length) dried jujubes, pitted
6 whole skinned gingko nuts (see notes)
2 to 4 raw chestnuts, peeled
2 pieces fresh ginseng (about 10cm long), or 2 large slices dried ginseng
4 medium cloves garlic
Thinly sliced scallions, for garnish
A mixture of salt, freshly ground black pepper, and ground toasted sesame seeds, for serving
In a medium bowl, cover rice with 1 inch of cold water and soak for 2 hours. Drain rice.
Wash hwanggi and eomnamu under cold running water, using a clean brush to dislodge any grit. Place hwanggi and eomnamu in a large saucepan, cover with 2 quarts (2 liters) cold water, and soak for 2 hours.
Transfer pot to the stovetop and bring to a simmer. Gently simmer hwanggi and eomnamu for 1 hour.
Meanwhile, trim off chickens' wing tips, tail, and excess fat. Clean inside of chicken cavity well, trying to remove any blood stuck between the ribs.
Stuff each chicken with alternating layers of sticky rice, jujubes, gingko, chestnuts, ginseng, and garlic.
Using a paring knife, cut a small slit into the skin on either side of the cavity. Cross the drumsticks, inserting the end of each drumstick through the slit on the opposite side of the cavity (this trusses the bird and seals the cavity without the need for string).
Strain the hwanggi and eomnamu from the broth, discarding the solids. Top up the broth with fresh water to equal 2 quarts (2 liters).
In a heavy, large pot or Dutch oven, arrange the stuffed birds side-by-side. Pour the broth over them. Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and gently simmer until the birds are fully cooked through and tender, about 2 hours. If the broth doesn't fully cover the birds, rotate them halfway through cooking.
Transfer each stuffed bird to a deep serving bowl or small earthenware pot and ladle the broth on top. Garnish with scallions and serve with the salt/pepper/sesame seed mixture alongside, so that each person can season the soup and chicken to their tastes.
Hwanggi, eomnamu, and the other Korean ingredients can be found at well-stocked Korean markets; you may not always be able to find every single one, so just use what you can get. Some stores will sell pre-assembled samgyetang ingredient packets, which can make it easy to procure the essentials.
If your gingko nuts need to be peeled, roast them in a lightly oiled pan over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the nuts start popping out of their skins. Lower heat and continue cooking until skins have loosened even more. Transfer gingko nuts to a paper towel and rub together to fully remove their skins.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The rice can be soaked and strained up to 1 day ahead, then kept in the refrigerator until ready to stuff the chickens. The soup can be made up to 5 days in advance, then gently reheated until chickens are completely heated through (use an instant-read thermometer to confirm the heat has penetrated to the center of the stuffing.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 44g||56%|
|Saturated Fat 12g||59%|
|Total Carbohydrate 86g||31%|
|Dietary Fiber 3g||10%|
|Total Sugars 17g|
|Vitamin C 33mg||164%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|