Oppressive heat and humidity, often combined with monsoon rains and soaring smog levels, make summer an excretory season in Korea. A normally surly people become even surlier, and thanks to energy-saving directives from the government, even going inside for air-conditioning is no guarantee of cooling off.
But rather than lining up at the popsicle shop to deal with it, Koreans prefer something else: a steaming hot bowl of chicken and ginseng soup known as samgyetang.
"In Korea, they say 'fight fire with fire!'" declares Choi Mi-hee, owner of Gangwon Toon Samgyetang in Ilsan, just north of Seoul. "[Samgyetang] has benefits [in the summer] because when it's too hot, we eat cold things. Our stomach gets colder but the rest of us stays hot. So we have to make it the same temperature."
Following that logic, on the three traditionally hottest days of the summer—chobok, jungbok, and malbok, according to the lunar calendar—locals storm the samgyetang restaurants of Korea to gobble down fat bowls of the stuff, supplemented with either ginseng liquor or bottles of soju.
Patrons walk in hot and exhausted, but "when we eat samgyetang, we can get our stamina back," Choi says.
"Korea has a lot of foods that are traditionally eaten on certain days," says restaurateur, Korean food expert, and ZenKimchi blogger Joe McPherson. In this case, "it's believed that eating a medicinal soup will replenish the nutrients lost from sweating during the hottest days of summer."
"Basically think of the properties of Gatorade but in soup form," he says.
Samgyetang is cooked with a young chicken, usually slaughtered at a month old, small enough to fit into a bowl and still very tender. The chicken is stuffed with glutinous rice, and cooked with ginseng, jujube, milk vetch root, chestnut, and garlic, plus whatever else the chef might have secreted away. Choi says she uses eight other secret ingredients, but insists they're all natural and salubrious.
Like most Korean soups, it's served in the same bowl it's cooked in, a stone dol-sot bowl, which means it's still at a rolling boil when it comes to the table. There are two ways to eat it—either pick out the bones and eat them one by one, dipping them in salt; or debone the entire thing, mix it in with the rice, and eat it like a porridge or congee.
The history of the meal goes back to Korea's days as an agrarian backwater, when there wasn't much to eat, and what there was wasn't great. "During the summer, you needed to have food that was full of protein and had a lot of calories," says Daniel Gray, restaurateur and blogger at Seoul Eats, a popular Korean food blog.
"You didn't usually have a lot of meat during that time," Gray says. "You couldn't butcher a cow [in the summer], because everything would spoil. You couldn't afford to have your cows be food instead of working your fields. A pig would be the same thing, so you had to have smaller kinds of animals: duck, dog, chicken, eel, those sorts of things. And by eating that and having protein in your body, you'd be able to work a little bit more."
Gray says that chicken was traditionally considered a non-nutritious meat, below beef, seafood, and pork. So the ginseng and other herbs were brewed in it to give it a nutritious kick.
"I think that's one of the really great things about a lot of the Korean food culture and food history—people are very in-tune with their bodies," Gray says. "And so if you were working every day in the hot fields, and then you eat something that has a lot of nutrition, you would definitely feel it the next day."
Whether ginseng really is medicinal or not is up for debate. I tried to find a Korean herbalist who would speak to be about it, but they were all weary of discussing it. WebMD lists over 45 ailments that can be treated with "Panax," the medicinal term for Asian ginseng. They include everything from cystic fibrosis, to liver cancer, to swine flu, to premature ejaculation. None of the treatments, they clearly note, have been proven to work.
Gray won't say whether ginseng is definitely medicinal or not, but he says Koreans certainly believe so, and have for centuries. "In Korea, ginseng is considered to be the cure-all for everything," Gray says.
McPherson notes that chicken soup is considered a form of medicine all over the world, and whether it really is "medicinal" or not, he likes to eat it when he's sick. He also digs the ginseng.
"It may be psychosomatic, but for me, the ginseng in the soup and the ginseng liquor—usually sold in a shot glass with the soup—have cooling effects on my body," McPherson says. "It's surprising that a boiling-hot soup can make one feel refreshed in the hottest of summer days."
Meanwhile, like everything Korean, a samgyetang fad is crashing through Asia like a tsunami. Following a new free trade agreement, exports of canned and frozen samgyetang have begun to flood en masse to China. Only a month after thousands of Chinese tourists came to Korea to eat fried chicken and beer, 4,000 Chinese ate samgyetang on the banks of Seoul's Han River. Samgyetang had been featured in another smash-hit K-drama, Descendants of the Sun. Samgyetang packages can even be ordered on Amazon.
With an average of more than 1,000 calories per bowl, samgyetang is not the best dish to eat if you're concerned for your waistline. But Choi says that considering the crap most Korean kids put away, they need to sit themselves down for a bowl of it, no matter the season.
"Nowadays, a lot of Koreans eat a lot of junk food," Choi says in disgust. "But samgyetang doesn't have chemical ingredients and is natural and healthy."