Ginseng Chicken Soup @ Tosokchon (토속촌)

If you Google “Best things to eat in Korea,” you will find that one name appears consistently across all travel websites, food blogs and review sites. That name is “TOSOKCHON.”

This place has been blogged to death but I still want to dedicate a post to it because in the eight months that I’ve been here, this is still one of the best things I’ve eaten. And I’ve eaten a lot, believe me. I have about five kilograms of weight gain to prove it.

Tosokchon is a restaurant that specialises in “Samgyetang” (삼계탕) or ginseng chicken soup. It’s always been one of my favorite Korean dishes and it’s something that Korean restaurants in Sydney don’t really do, so it was the one thing I was most looking forward to eating in Korea.

The restaurant is conveniently located right next to Gyeongbokgung Palace, which makes it very easy to add to your Seoul sightseeing itinerary. But best to go on a weekday outside peak lunch/dinner times because the lines on the weekend are CRAY. I went once on a Saturday, at around 11:30 am, and there was already a 50-person line. I mean, it’s worth the wait, but try to avoid it.

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We visited Tosokchon on a cold night in winter, after a day trip to the ski fields. To me, Samgyetang seems like the perfect winter comfort food but Koreans prefer to eat it in the summer. It is traditionally eaten on the hottest days of the year to replenish your body with all the nutrients that you lose sweating under the summer heat.

The restaurant looks like a traditional Korean “hanok” style house, but on the inside it opens up into several spacious dining rooms. My guess is that the restaurant has been through a number of expansions due to its ridiculous popularity with tourists.

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The menu has three items, but people come here for one thing only. The classic Samgyetang is the second item and costs 15,000 won. The other two are souped-up versions of the dish (pun not intended ho ho ho). They both include some sort of exotic mountain ginseng, and the third item uses the silkie fowl instead of regular chicken, which means black meat!!! Worth a try if you’re feeling adventurous.

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In Sydney I would often judge a restaurant by the quality of its bread. In Korea, you judge a restaurant by the quality of its kimchi, which is always the first thing to come out. And dang, this was some of the best kimchi I’ve ever had. I could have just eaten this with a bowl of rice for dinner and walked away happy.

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Us kimchi-loving Koreans fall into one of two camps: those who prefer fresh kimchi, and those who prefer ripe, well fermented kimchi. I am of the former camp because the cabbage in fresh kimchi still has its crunch, and you can more distinctly taste the salt and red pepper flakes that it is seasoned with. I much prefer this to the vinegary, pickled flavor of ripe kimchi. But the best kimchi is just on the cusp of ripeness, bringing together the best of both worlds. Maybe it depends on the day and the batch, but the kimchi I had at Tosokchon was of that rare and delicious variety. The radish kimchi (gakdugi) was very good too.

Now moving on to the main event. So what exactly is Samgyetang and what’s the big deal?

Think about it like this. Let’s pretend that chickens have their own social system and hierarchy. The poor, peasant chickens end up as processed deli meat and frozen chicken nuggets. The working class chickens end up battered and deep fried, or on a rotisserie. The high-earning, professional chickens end up stuffed with lemon and sage, and roasted for Christmas dinner. The exotic, ethnic chickens end up as steamed chicken feet or hainanese chicken rice. The mega-rich, millionaire chickens end up as a ballontine or a mousse at a fine dining restaurant. But the highest class of chicken, chicken royalty, the demi-gods of the chicken kingdom – they will meet their final destiny in a glorious, steaming hot-stone bowl of Samgyetang.

The beauty of Samgyetang lies in its simplicity. The dish is designed to allow the chicken to reach its fullest potential, taking nothing away and adding only what will enhance it’s natural God-given flavour. A whole chicken is used, so that no flesh or bone is wasted. It is then stuffed with glutinous rice that soaks up all the chicken flavors from the inside and is cooked in a broth of ginseng, dried jujube, garlic and ginger; ingredients that not only draw out and highlight the flavors of the chicken, but also have their own medicinal properties. This is why Samgyetang is considered by Koreans as a sort of “cure for everything” superfood. There is also usually a chestnut involved, but I’m not sure whether it adds any flavour or is just intended as hidden treasure to be found amidst your stuffing.

Anyone who reads this blog would know how obsessed with chicken I am, and as much as I LOVE fried chicken, roast chicken and hainanese chicken rice, I think Samgyetang takes the coveted crown as “Heather’s all-time favourite chicken dish in the whole wide word.” That is a very, very high honour.

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The Samgyetang is served and it is breathtaking. The broth is miky white and bubbling in its stone pot, exposing a few glossy curves of naked chicken flesh and topped with chopped spring onion and an assortment of seeds.

Is it inappropriate and creepy to describe a chicken as “sexy”? It may be, but I can’t think of another word that more accurately describes the look of this dish.

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The stock is perfectly seasoned, but I always like adding some extra pepper to my chicken soup. If you tear away a bit of the flesh, you’ll find the cavity stuffed to the edges with rice. I like to scoop it out into the soup, so that it soaks up even more of the broth. A spoonful of rice soaked in tasty soup is one of my, and the entire nation of Korea’s, favourite things.

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Because the chicken is boiled whole and slow in a rich broth, the meat is incredibly tender and easily falls off even the trickier bones, like the wing. The soup stays very very hot because of the pot, so the trick is to use one of your side bowls and spoon out a bit of rice, soup and chicken meat to let it cool before you eat it. Your table should also have some salt and pepper that you can dip your chicken into if you would like some extra seasoning.

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If you are truly hardcore, you can eat the ginseng once you find it. I personally can’t handle it… I don’t care how good it is for you, ginseng is gross. It is, however, a crime to leave any meat on your chicken – have some respect!!

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Tosokchon’s location and popularity may make you suspicious of its legitimacy because it does has all the warning signs of a tourist trap. But take my word for it, this place is worth the hype. I am a Samgyetang enthusiast and I haven’t found a restaurant anywhere in Seoul that does it as well as Tosokchon. Whether you’re living in Korea or just visiting, this place is a must-visit. Your life will be better for it.

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Last Supper in Sydney @ Bills, Surry Hills

It’s August now, which means it’s been more than six months since I left Sydney and moved to Seoul. This is the second last Sydney restaurant I have left to blog about, and I’ve deliberately procrastinated posting these last two because even though it breaks all the rules of food blogging to leave a six month gap between dining and writing, I’m dreading the sadness of typing the last word on my final Sydney food post.

But I can’t drag this out forever. It’ll be about a year before I’m back in Sydney, even for a visit, so I should learn to embrace my new identity as a Seoul food blogger. Though, for some reason, the food here doesn’t inspire me to blog as much as it did in Sydney. I’m not sure why. It may have something to do with the fact that every man and his dog is a food blogger in Korea. Even the most obscure, nameless, back-alley neighbourhood restaurant will have a blog post dedicated to it, complete with photos and a map. It’s a bit intimidating, but don’t worry, I’ll find my foodspiration and keep doing my thing.

For now, wind back the clock to Sydney, circa December 2013.

I planned my final meals in Australia very carefully. I held so many “farewell” dinners it got a bit ridiculous and people started to realise that this was just an excuse for me to tick off as many restaurants on my list as possible before I left the country,

For the farewell dinner I organised with my dear work friends, I wanted to eat somewhere iconic. I couldn’t afford Tetsuya’s or Quay, so I settled on Bills.

In recent years, Bills has been overshadowed by the hundreds of hipster cafes that have popped up all over the city, but I don’t think any of those cafes would even exist now if Bills hadn’t paved the way and envisioned a cafe breakfast that was more sophisticated than a bacon and egg muffin.

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Did you know that Bills on Crown Street is open for dinner? It might seem a bit silly to have dinner at a restaurant that is famous for breakfast, but their signature ricotta hotcakes are actually on the dinner menu as a dessert option. There was also something else on the dinner menu that intrigued me and I was eager to check out: kimchi fried rice.

I LOVE kimchi fried rice. When you have over-fermented kimchi that is starting to smell alcoholic and week-old rice in the fridge, you would be justified in throwing both those things in the bin. But the smarter, less wasteful, more delicious thing to do would be to throw then in a frypan instead and make some kimchi fried rice. It is something people rarely pay money for, so I was very curious about whether Bills could pull it off as a proper restaurant-appropriate dish.

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The restaurant’s interior is clean, simple and unaffected by the trends that dictate most other restaurants and bars in the area.

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There is not a mason jar, clipboard menu or decorative heirloom in sight.

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They do, however, serve wine in a small glass pitcher, with a stem-less wine glass. I’d never seen this before but I kind of loved it – it felt really retro, like I was drinking hard liquor in one of the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

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Everyone was coming from their respective offices, so we ordered an appetiser as we waited for late arrivals. This is the semolina-crusted calamari with lemon, parsley, green beans and fennel – $19.50

The dinner menu at Bills is quite multicultural, which would usually raise some red flags, but I think Bill Granger is one of the few Australian chefs you could trust with a variety of international cuisines. He was one of Australia’s first celebrity chefs, has more than ten cookbooks to his name and has had a long partnership with the awesome Kylie Kwong, which is the thing that gives him the most street creed. The above appetiser was a very light, aussie-fied version of the Chinese classic.

The mains we ordered were from all over the world.

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From Italy, we enjoyed prawn and chilli linguine with garlic and rocket ($26.50)…

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and also a really lovely, rich ragu with seashell pasta and a few handfuls of parmesan shavings. I think this was a special – and one of the best dishes of the night.

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From Thailand, I chose the yellow fish curry with spiced pumpkin, peanuts, brown rice and cucumber relish ($28.50) – not something I would usually order, but I wanted something rich and full of flavour. The curry was a bit mild for my liking, but I love how soft, white fish soaks up the flavours of a curry.

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There are, of course, some Australian classics on the dish like this massive parmesan crumbed chicken schnitzel, with creamed corn, coriander and fennel salad ($27.50). Good for hungry meat-lovers who want something a bit more substantial than typical cafe fare.

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This is meant to be a a wagyu beef burger – but my health-conscious friend replaced the bun, cheese and fries with a salad. Not a life choice I could ever understand, but each to their own.

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And finally, from Korea, the kimchi fried rice.

Or so we thought.

This is listed on the menu as “crab, chorizo and house kim chee fried brown rice” ($22.50.) Normal kimchi fried rice can be made with just kimchi and rice, but you can also add some protein in the form of canned tuna or diced spam. So when we saw this on the menu we were all like “Oh! Crab! Chorizo! This is going to be the fanciest, most delicious kimchi fried rice evvvveeerrrr!”

In hindsight, this was foolish and we should have known that we were setting ourselves up for disappointment.

First, but kind of a side note, Bills is OBSESSED with coriander. Seriously, coriander appeared on almost every single dish. The stuff must be growing like weeds in Granger’s backyard.

Second – doesn’t the way the the dish is described on the menu give the impression that all these delicious ingredients would be mixed together and fried with the brown rice? That’s what we thought too, so we were really surprised to see the dish come out with the kimchi served mainly on the side (covered by the giant heap of coriander in the photo).

The rice tasted like run-of-the-mill fried rice, with vague hints of chilli, crab and chorizo… and almost none of the spicy fermented cabbage flavor you should be getting from kimchi fried rice.

The kimchi on the side tasted just like … regular kimchi. Thinking about it, it’s pretty arrogant for a Western restaurant to boast “house made” kimchi on the menu, when there is perfectly fresh, perfectly delicious kimchi available from Korean grocers everywhere. Like, if you’re going to take advantage of the Korean food-trend by including a kimchi dish on your menu, it would be nice if you supported Korean producers and small businesses by using their high-quality, authentic products.

The yellow egg ribbons, I think, were meant to be a play on the fried egg you usually get on top of your kimchi fried rice, or the thin sheet of scrambled eggs that sometimes covers the whole plate omurice-style. But even egg could not save this sad, bland imitation of kimchi bokkumbap.

One disappointment led to another when I excitedly asked for the ricotta hotcakes for dessert and the waitress informed me that they had run out.

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Erm. There are a few things I don’t quite understand about “running out” of ricotta hotcakes.

1. They are your signature dish. I don’t care if it’s dinnertime; it’s on your dessert menu, if you consider yourself a professional establishment you should have BUCKETS of ricotta in your cool room to deal with demand.

2. Even if you run out of ricotta… just send one of the kitchen hands down to the freaking Thomas Dux and buy some more!!!! Do you not realise that 90% of the people who walk through your doors are only there for the ricotta hotcakes?

3. THEY’RE PANCAKES FOR GOODNESS SAKE. This is not the type of thing you should run out of. A rare vintage wine, I understand. A whole suckling pig, also understand. Pancakes? No. Pancakes are something that you can still make even when you’re dirt broke and have less than five things in your fridge.

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So here are the desserts we got instead of Bill Granger’s famous ricotta hotcakes.

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Strawberry pavlova with yoghurt cream.

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Chocolate pudding.

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Some berry mousse thing.

All pleasant. All unspectacular. All NOT ricotta hotcakes.

Putting the hotcakes debacle to one side, Bills is quite a nice place to have dinner with friends. It’s quiet and comfortable, and the food is well-made and uncontroversial, in that there is something to please everyone.

The kimchi fried rice is still on the menu but please, don’t bother with it. Buy a small bag of kimchi from your Korean grocer and follow any one of these recipes and you’ll be better off.

Bills 
359 Crown St 
Surry Hills, NSW

Bills on Urbanspoon

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Super Quick and Easy Tamago Udon

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned my love for the hand-made tamago udon that I had for breakfast in Japan. Well I found a couple of decent recipes online and thought I’d have a go at it myself. This is almost too simple to call a “recipe” as the difficulty level is probably only one step up from instant ramyun. But that’s the beauty of it, super simple, quick and easy to make for those lazy, lonely nights at home. You only need four ingredients:

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First, the eggs. I did some research online about salmonella poisoning and the internet recommends that you use fresh, organic eggs to minimise the risk.

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I’m not actually sure whether these eggs are organic… I just assumed they were the safest available eggs because:

1. I bought them at a health food store

2. There are green leaves and grass on the packaging.

3. They were expensive.

How bad could a bout of salmonella poisoning be anyway? Nothing a few days on the toilet and a course of antibiotics won’t fix.

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Fresh udon noodles – conveniently sold as a single serving size. Koreans like putting udon noodles in a lot of things, so these are really easy to come by. If you’re living in a non-asian country, fresh udon shouldn’t be too hard to find if you can access a Korean grocery or other asian supermarket.

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This is hon tsuyu. I figured this would do the job since I don’t want to bother making a dashi from scratch just for one bowl of noodles. Hon tsuyu is normally used as a dipping sauce, and is diluted when used as a soup stock. However, since I just want to add flavour to my noodles, I will simply add a couple of tablespoons to my cooked noodles.

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Spring onion. WAY more than I needed, but the store didn’t have a smaller bunch.

And here is the cooking process in three ridiculously easy steps:

1. Cook udon noodles (for however long it says on the pack… around 4 minutes should do)

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3. Drain noodles. Do not rinse because you want the warm noodles to cook the egg slightly.

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3. Crack an egg on top, throw in a handful of chopped spring onion, and add two tablespoons of the hon tsuyu.

THE END!

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Looks pretty boring from here, but let me tell you, the simple combination of raw egg, hon tsuyu and spring onion is like an umami explosion in your mouth. It confirms that raw egg is the world’s greatest condiment.

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The egg white gets a bit foamy, which sadly makes the dish look a bit soapy. Next time I’m going to try and track down some tempura flakes (tenkasu) and use wider spring onions, so they are more easily caught by the noodles and chopsticks.

This now officially one of my favorite things to make when I am home alone and don’t feel like cooking. It is much easier and quicker than cooking rice or making a sandwich and I think it would be hard to beat in terms of the cost+effort+time to taste+enjoyment ratio. That is, assuming you don’t get a nasty salmonella infection.*

* Has anyone actually ever contracted salmonella from a raw or undercooked egg in recent history? I would really like to know. I’m starting to think it’s an urban legend.
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