Saturday, January 11, 2014

A chicken in every pot

Though the common impression of Korean food is robust, meaty and chili-seasoned, seared in smoky charcoal flames and washed down with copious amounts of harsh alcohol, there is another side to Korean food. Perhaps as a direct reaction to these sensory excesses, Korean cusine also includes simple and healthful recipes.

Sam gye tang is Korean chicken ginseng soup, and like chicken soups of other cultures, it's considered a traditional remedy for those who are weak, ill or need restoration of the soul and palate much sapped by gustatory dissipation.

Ginseng is said to boost metabolism, reduce stress, soothe respiratory ailments, and invigorate the appetite, and sam gye tang is often recommended in the heat of summer. This sounds paradoxical, but in summer our appetites are often subdued, so hot food spurs circulation to the internal organs, restoring vigor.

Los Angeles' weather can be cool or hot any time of year, and sam gye tang is good year-round. Like many Koreatown restaurants, Buil Sam Gye Tang specializes in doing one dish well, and you can choose between chicken soup with or without ginseng, chicken soup with abalone, or chicken soup with ginseng and additional medicinal herbs.

The restaurant is neat and homey inside, with wooden chairs padded with quaint rooster-patterned cushions. I ordered Number One, chicken soup with ginseng, and right away the kindly gentleman proprietor brough me a cup of warm ginger tea.

An array of panchan was brought to the table, with chopsticks and the typical Korean long-handled metal spoon - this one dressed in a little paper cover, a nice touch.

The side dishes included kimchi, or chili-pickled cabbage, some sliced raw carrots and jalapenos, pickled onion and cucumber, and chunks of chicken gizzard in sesame oil. There was also a little dish of salt and a double dish of raw garlic and doenjang, or fermented soybean paste.

I took a taste of each, and within moments, my chicken soup was placed before me.

It was served in a hot stone pot, or dolsot, and it was still boiling furiously when it arrived. I breathed in the steam.

Sam gye tang is the ultimate pot of chicken soup - a whole, small chicken, boiled tender in broth, stuffed with sticky rice, garlic, dates or dried jujubes and chestnuts.

The proprietor helpfully demonstrated that I should salt and pepper the broth, which typically comes to the table bland and unseasoned. A ladle and side plate were provided to help dissect the little bird, and a metal pan to discard its bones.

The tender meat slipped right off the bone at the touch of chopsticks, and I could scoop the stuffing out with the spoon. The date was rich and sweet, and the chestnut meat was similar to sweet potato, and a pretty golden color. I did not eat the ginseng, which was a long twisty root like a parsnip - perhaps I should have, for its healthful properties.

Art deco video store
A trip to Buil Sam Gye Tang is a journey into the ethnic and cultural mix that marks Los Angeles, and in particular Koreatown. The restaurant is across the street from a Bangladeshi halal market, and as I approached the door, a bearded man in white churidar and kurta, head covered with a white taqiyah, stood on the corner before a Korean video store housed in a fantastic art deco building. There's a liquor store, a cell-phone store, and a pizza joint offering sweet potato mousse as a topping option. Next door, there's an office for a Korean Christian evangelist organization, across the street from that incomprehensible  hipster creation, a vapor bar.

For me, inhaling the soothing steam of my own personal boiled chicken in its own little pot was healing enough.

1 comment:

cookingwithgas said...

I love all the small sides dishes that come with the meal. The soup sounds so good. I love the stone bowls that are used. I wish I was there.