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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!
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.