A while ago, my mother sent me the most ridiculous pair of slippers ever.
Have you seen a pair of slippers more amusing than this pair? Look at the garish pink bobbles! And what is up with the baby pink dolphin with the smile? You tilt one way and that fishy smile looks sinister, while at other times it just looks cute.
My mother warned me about these slippers before she sent them to me. She had found them on her mission trip to Asia. She started describing it to me, and then she let out a giggle and said, “Hee hee hee, you’ll see!”
So I see. I first saw the “WTF” hilarity of the slippers. And then I saw my mother’s sense of humor. She had sent these slippers as kind of a joke. She had seen them, marveled at the ridiculousness of its design, and known I would share her humor too.
I love my mom in so many ways, and this is just one tiny example. So I feel it appropriate to share with you a classic Korean comfort dish, the kind of food that makes you feel like you’re eating something from the warm bosom of your mother, the kind that smells distinctly like your dear mother’s kitchen.
I’m sure every mother’s kitchen smells different. And I’m glad for it. I love the unique aromas (some would say odor) of my mother’s kitchen: pungent garlic from the various kimchi stored in the fridge, lots of vinegary pickles, tubs of fermented soy beans, mingled with the more mellow waft of steamed white rice, toasty sesame oil and bittersweet tea leaves. That’s the smell I miss most of home, other than my dad’s cologne and my mom’s lotion.
I brought some of those smells to the Olaskys kitchen one evening, because I was cooking a iconic summer dish for them. Now it’s been more than two weeks (!!) since I’ve left Asheville and my dear hosts, but I still remember the Olaskys’ kitchen aromas: fresh summer fruits, brewed coffee, the occasional fragrance of roasted vegetables and herbs. That night, however, those mild smells were obliterated by the bolder Korean food odor.
Fellow Koreans may already know which famous summer dish I’m talking about. It’s Sam Gye Tang (삼계탕)—or Ginseng Chicken Soup in English. You might think it unfitting to eat hot soup in the sweltering summer heat, but Sam Gye Tang has always been believed by the Koreans to actually be a stimulating summer dish. They believe it resuscitates the diner with all the nutrients and stamina lost due to excessive sweating.
Ginseng, of course, is Korea’s national treasure. Korea irrefutably has the best quality ginseng in the world. Don’t even think about buying ginseng that is made in China, because you’ll be wasting money on poor product. The problem, however, was that I couldn’t find the two key ingredients I needed for Sam Gye Tang in Asheville: ginseng and jujube.
Another reason I love my mommy: she brought with her some ginseng and jujube from Korea when she and my dad visited me in Asheville. She didn’t even really question my request; I think she was actually glad I would be cooking Sam Gye Tang for my hosts and friends. In fact, she also brought us a whole tub of good-quality kimchi!
So. Sam Gye Tang is actually a very, very easy dish. It requires no expert or complicated techniques. Well, scratch that—you do need some basic sewing skills, which I lack. Which is why I’m so grateful to Chelsea for taking charge of that. Hi, Chels!
I miss you!
Anyway. First, what you do is soak some glutinous rice, or sweet rice for a few hours, or even overnight (I found them in bulk at Whole Foods Market):
Meanwhile, crackle open a freakton of garlic cloves. Yes, a freakton!!! And for me that means like 4 whole bulbs of garlic. Drain the soaked rice and combine them with the jujube and garlic.
And then gather the chicken(s). Usually Korean restaurants serve one cornish hen per person—but I’ve come to discover that most Koreans generally eat a whole lot more than the average person. So instead, I bought one cornish hen and one young chicken.
Before preparing, you should wash the chicken and salt them. And then stuff the chickens!! Just shove as much of the rice, garlic and jujubes as you can into the birds. And when the bird can take in no more, get Chelsea to sew the openings up so that the yummy contents don’t leak out:
She did a fine job! If it was me I would have unintentionally sewn my own finger into the chicken skin.
Next, I laid the chicken into a massive pot, glugged a mixture of chicken broth and water until the birds were barely covered, and threw in the ginseng and whatever garlic is left over. Then boil, simmer, simmer simmer simmer simmer simmer until the chicken and the rice is cooked through.
I also threw in a spare mushroom and some red onion I found lying about the table. Totally unnecessary, but waste not.
Oh man. The aromas of the chicken and ginseng and garlic…It’s heavenly. I stood by the pot for about an hour, skimming off the fat and whatever impurities that float up to the surface.
And then it was time to serve. We laid out a dish of kimchi:
And a dish of sliced scallions to stir into our individual dishes:
And also the roasted seaweed my mother brought us, and some salt for seasoning:
And here’s our little chicken, swimming in its own juices:
I forgot to name it, but all the better. Because it wasn’t done justice.
You see, I made a boo-boo. I should have soaked the rice a few more hours earlier, especially because I stuffed it into a bigger chicken than a baby-sized cornish hen. So it turned out that the rice wasn’t fully cooked through. Boo!!
My diners took it all with grace, though. The chicken and broth at least, were still good.
The young chicken ended up being filling, enough for five people. I picked it apart to the bones, because I was determined to do the chicken justice for its sacrifice.
We stored the other cornish hen for the next day.
You really don’t need a recipe for this dish—Korean mamas don’t use them—but here’s just a rough sketch of the ingredient list:
Sam Gye Tang -삼계탕- (Ginseng Chicken Soup)
- about 1/2 cup glutinous rice
- 2 small chickens, or cornish hens
- about 2-3 ginseng roots
- a small handful of jujubes
- a BIG handful of garlic
- about 5 cups of low sodium chicken broth
- water if needed
- 1 bunch scallions
- needle and thread
- salt and black pepper for seasoning at the table
That’s about it! Easy peasy. The whole procedure takes about 2 hours (minus the rice-soaking part), so plan ahead if you do decide to try this dish out. Hurry before the summer ends though!
Question of the Day: What does your mother’s kitchen smell like?