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NEWSLETTER > Essay > KOREAN CUISINE: THE BEST I’VE EXPERIENCED : SAMGYETANG My Samgyetang Story: Iyeolchiyeol, or How to Cool...

KOREAN CUISINE: THE BEST I’VE EXPERIENCED : SAMGYETANG
My Samgyetang Story: Iyeolchiyeol, or How to
Cool Yourself during a Summer Heat

Every time I’m asked what my favorite Korean dish is, my answer is always the same: samgyetang. Why? Well, there are several reasons for that.
My first encounter with this Korean dish happened when I was studying at Yonsei University, where I did my Korean language program back in 2003. Of course, I had heard about samgyetang numerous times both before and during my course, but I had never actually tried it myself. Our language classes usually ended around noon and our group used to go down to the basement or lunch after the classes were finished, which had pretty much the same menu every day. There was this one day, however, that turned out to be quite special—at least, it did for me.
It was the beginning of July and the day was exceptionally hot and sunny. Cicadas were crying so loudly outside that we had to close the windows to shut out the noise. Our teacher told us that it was a chobok day today (which can be translated as “the first day of the hottest period of summer”) and that, according to Korean tradition, we should eat samgyetang.
When my classmates and I went downstairs to have lunch, there was only one item on the menu: samgyetang. I loved it from the very first spoonful, because what’s not to like? It was a whole chicken with rice and a bit of ginseng stuffed inside, served in a broth. At that point of my life in Korea I still had a hard time eating spicy food, so samgyetang felt like heaven: not spicy at all, but at the same time very delicious and filling.
Samgyetang is not an everyday treat for Koreans. It is considered to be somewhat fancy and is typically only eaten during hot and humid Korean summers, as Koreans believe the dish boosts metabolism and brings healthy energy to one’s body. Indeed, it does. At first the very concept of eating boiling chicken soup during scorching Seoul summer may seem a bit extreme and alien to some foreigners. Why eat hot soup at the time when everything your body strives for is a cold ice cream?
It is far more than just a chicken soup. There is a Korean saying of Chinese origin, 이열치열 (iyeolchiyeol), that literally means “to ward off the heat with greater heat” (or its English counterpart, “fight fire with fire”), and samgyetang is all about that. Koreans believe that eating hot soup on a hot day not only helps you avoid overheating and cool yourself down, but also helps replenish the energy that your body needs so badly during this hot and humid season.
Scientifically speaking, the Koreans are right; it has been proven that this particular dish does a great job of contributing to your daily intake of fat, protein, and vitamins. And even without me telling you, I’m sure many have heard that ginseng is very healthy for your body. But all these scientific evidences aside, believe me, you will feel happy after having this wonderfully tasty chicken soup, just for the simple reason that it is awesomely delicious. I have tried out many places that serve samgyetang since then, and every one of them tries to stand out from the crowd. Sometimes they add Korean herbs to their samgyetang and sometimes it’s served alongside a glass of ginseng wine, but no matter the style, samgyetang remains my No. 1 dish. After 12 years in Korea I now have a couple of favorite samgyetang restaurants that I frequent with my friends, but even now, after sampling this Korean cuisine masterpiece dozens of times, I still remember that simple first taste I had in the basement cafeteria of Yonsei KLI building where my samgyetang story began.

Belyakov Ilya
KF Honorary Culture Sharing Ambassador

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