Mom and anyone else who speaks better Korean than I do calls it sam gye tang. I call it Chicken Ginseng Soup which is a bit of harmless misnomer. Only because the chicken is actually a Cornich Rock Game Hen -- a long name for a tiny bird that's usually found rock hard deep in the freezer section. Along with a handful of ingredients, it transforms a pot of water from something merely hydrating to a healing pot of soft broth that can make you feel good down to your bones. And it's what I can only resurrect when I or the people I care about need something that tastes better NyQuil.
Apart from locating the birds and thawing them out, the process is rather simple. And it isn't that it's hard, it's just that it's murder for impatient types like me to soak the little plastic-wrapped bird in cold water to thaw. I once asked the lady who worked at the Korean market if anyone had fresh game hens around. She looked at me quizzically like I asked where I could find and strangle my own cow. "Frozen works just fine," she said and walked off after she pointed out the little sam gye tang kit I needed.
When I told my Mom about this exchange she was mortified. "Why did you ask that?" she pleaded over the phone. "I always use frozen, no one has fresh!" Silly me to defy the ways of countless Korean-American wives who've had to make do in a country where mass produced chickens are the size of toddlers.
Which should point out the virtues of this soup, despite the use of game hens that have slumbered in deep freeze for god knows how long. I had the sam gye tang kit sitting next to my thawed bird. It's an ingenious package of uncooked glutinous sweet rice, red dates, dried chestnuts, and knobbly bits of ginseng root. You add a clove of garlic and stuff the lot into the tiny cavity, truss (or not, in my case), and place it in a deep pot with plenty of water to cover and let it cook.
An hour or so later, you've got one of the most unique chicken soups around, subtly flavored with garlic, ginseng, and red dates and a wonderful stuffing of velvety sweet rice and chestnuts. The broths and the vapors from it are subtle and soothing. Everything is indistinct, a soft chord of good feeling that soaks into every aching cell when you are ill. And it's pretty good when you're healthy, too. Though it's quite special when you make it for a friend or yourself.
Of course, I made a mistake when I told my mother I cooked for myself when I was under the weather. "Why did you make it for yourself?" my mother demanded to know over the phone. She sounded angry. Not in a "what?!-you're-not-going-to-law-school?!" sort of way. It was more that her role as a proper Korean mother was questioned by my neglect to ask her for soup. "I'm your mother, Vanessa, I'm supposed to make things like this for you." A bit of sadness tinged her voice. So I told her, I still was sick and wanted more soup. She called me later that day saying it was ready for me to eat.
For those who don't have mothers at the ready (insisting) to make you this, it's easily self-serving.
Sam Gye Tang (Chicken Ginseng Soup)
Game hen is crucial here, a standard chicken won't do (think of 30-year olds playing high school kids on FOX melodramas). I keep a little army of game hens in the freezer during winter just to be ready. To thaw I soak it (plastic wrapping and all) in a big bowl of water. At Korean markets in the refrigerated section you can find these san gye tang kits with the aromatics that you need. But you can source each item separately, too. Within a day you can have healing aromas simmering away in the kitchen.
1 Cornish Rock Game Hen (thawed) * 4 tablespoons uncooked sweet rice * 3 dried red dates * 2 dried chestnuts * 1 2-inch knob of dried ginseng root * 1 fat clove of juicy, fresh garlic * water to cover * chopped green onions * sea salt * freshly cracked black pepper
Stuff the bird with the rice, dates, chestnuts, ginseng, and garlic. Place it in a large pot and pour enough water to cover the bird (most of it anyway, those buggers float). Cover the pot and bring to boil. Reduce heat to low simmer and cook for at least an hour.
I've simmered it for a couple of hours with great results. The broth reduces, so you get less healing liquid, but the flavor is intensified. If you like soupier medicine you can dilute it with more water. To eat, season the soup with chopped green onion, salt and pepper. Slurp loudly with a generous spoon and eat chicken with metal chopsticks, fork or your fingers. You can neglect the red dates and ginseng. But devour everything else, especially that velvety mound of sweet rice.
A nap afterwards is always a good idea, to..