“I am visiting Seoul next week. What are the must-eats in Seoul?” — This is one of the frequently asked questions posted to me when friends are planning out their itinerary in Seoul. So here comes this post about one of my favourite Korean dishes, also one of the restaurant I would bring my guests to each time they visit Seoul — The Tosokchon Samgyetang (토속촌 삼계탕).
Samgyetang 삼계탕 [read: Samm-gaye-ttang] , commonly known as the Korean Ginseng Chicken, is a traditional Korean dish. It is well known as a super nutritious food that uses medium-sized young chicken as the main ingredient. The chicken is first filled with glutinous rice, gingko nuts, ginseng, garlic and jujube then braised with 30 different types of medicinal herbs and grains to its signature tender soft texture.
Having visited quite an amount of “good samgyetang houses” didn’t stop me from coming back to Tosokchon for more. It might be the fond memories of my friends or my family there (I have been constantly visiting this place for 5 years) or just simply because the taste of their soup. Even the late South Korean President Mr. Noh Mu Hyun is also a frequent visitor here too! It was said that whenever he visited the place, he would foot the bill for all that visited the restaurant at the same time. There was also such story that Mr Noh Mu Hyun loves their ginseng chicken so much that during his presidency, he also called up Tosokchon for delivery to the Blue House too.
Tosokchon is very popular among tourists and also locals. I have never seen it without the long queue, regardless how random my visiting time is. However, I would say that the queue is deceptively long. The compound of the restaurant is quite big (seat 420 people and expanding) so the waiting time is not as long as one could imagine. Big black umbrellas were also given to customers who didn’t get to stand under the shades while waiting. To make sure their long queue doesn’t block the only entrance to the restaurant, they even hire ushers to direct the traffic.
I was there during a public holiday. It took me about 30 minutes to reach this current spot where I took the picture of the front staff. Staffs are pretty experienced dealing with huge crowds therefore very efficient about getting customers a seat in the shortest time possible.
The restaurant operates in a renovated Hanok (Traditional Korean House). The guests will be brought to different rooms, some are modern ones with normal dining tables and chairs, some are the traditional Korean settings with short leg dining tables, where you need to remove your shoes to enter the room. Once you are seated, you may read the menu and order your food with the Ajummas. They will then pass you a coloured plate depending on the amount you order. Once you finish your meal, you can bring the plate and proceed to the exit counter to pay for your meal.
They serve 4 different types of Samgyetang. I always have the original Samgyetang, which cost KRW 15,000 per serving.
They serve good house kimchi that has a very balanced sweet and spicy taste — the kind foreigners could appreciate better. Although it was way better years back, the current ones they serve still is still satisfying albeit a little warm after being placed at room temperature for quite some time. Radish in the saucer at the left-hand side was pleasantly fermented, crispy and not too sour.
House Kimchi at Tosokchon.
A mini glass of ginseng infused liquor is served before the ginseng chicken. It is very strong, supposedly to warm you inside out before enjoying the chicken. If the liquor is too strong for your liking, you may consider pouring into the ginseng chicken pot before eating. The alcohol will evaporate with the heat, leaving a hint of sweetness in your soup.
Now here comes the ginseng chicken:
Topped with pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, pine nuts, sunflower seeds, and chopped scallions, this signature dish of Tosokchon looks extremely delish. The aroma of garlic and the milky-licious broth permeated the air, titillating your senses.
One distinguishing feature about Tosokchon Samgyetang is the nuts. They are so far the only Samgyetang specialist I encounter that sprinkle different kind of nuts onto their chickens, which add a little nuttiness to the overall flavour. Tucking in with a spoonful of glutinous rice, having the crunchy seeds bursting in your mouth adding a nutty aroma to the overall experience… this made the 30 minutes wait out there under the sun worthwhile.
The chicken meat is seriously tender. It came in a whole chicken, and all you need to do is to tear it gently in half, where you will find glutinous rice, ginseng, whole garlic cloves, chestnuts and dates inside. The meat is so moist and tender that they just fall off the bones easily, without extra effort. My way of enjoying the chicken? Soak the glutinous rice in the milky soup while concentrating on eating the meat, and then eat the rice after it absorbs the essence of the broth to the fullest. YUMS!
As the soup is cooked unseasoned, the restaurant also provides salt and pepper. What I do is only to dip the chicken with a minimum of salt. I don’t put the salt and pepper into the soup as I love the original flavour of the soup and do not feel the need to season it anymore.
One more point before I end the review: Look at the size of the ginseng — Upon witnessing the size of the ginseng yourself, I believe no one would complain about the price of the ginseng chicken anymore. So what is the effect of ginseng here in the soup? Other than making it more expensive (lol) ginseng is said to best compliment the chicken and to maximise the nutrition of all ingredients and bring out the best in your body!
My Verdict: If you ask me about what to eat in Seoul, the 1st thing that comes to my mind will be Tosokchon. I recommend this to everyone, especially for 1st-timer to Korea. They serve the best milky, piping hot and comforting chicken soup in a speedy manner. Judging by the never-ending crowds and the little story about how former South Korean President Roh Mu-Hyun loves their ginseng chicken, you know this particular restaurant is well-loved by tourists and locals.
However, fluctuating service quality makes my recent trip a little disappointing. First the ajumma that served us apparently wasn’t in a good mood that day. The way she left the stone pots onto our table, following by her greeting us (with her buttocks not her face) saying: “맛있게 드세요” (Please enjoy your meal!), made us feel unwelcome. What is more, the soup wasn’t at the usual bubbling state when it was served too.
As I haven’t found any samgyetang (ginseng chicken) place that does better than them (tenderness of the chicken win other places hands down), Tosokchon is still my favourite Samgyetang place. Conveniently located at Gyeongbok Palace Station, I would recommend to visit the restaurant after your trip at the Gyeongbok Palace.
Tosokchon Samgyetang 토속촌 삼계탕
85-1 Jongno-Gu, Chebu-Dong, Seoul.
Tel: +82 2-737-7444 | Operating Hours: 10am-11pm |
Korean Version of the Address: 대한민국 서울특별시 종로구 체부동 85-1
How to get there:
1. Coming out from Exit No. 2 of Gyeongbok Palace Station (경복궁역 2번 출구) of the Orange Line, walk straight.
2. Once you see the convenient store chain “GS 25” at your left hand side, turn left. (Usually takes about one and a half to 2 minutes from the exit of the station to GS25.)
3. You will see a traditional house at the back of GS25. That’s your destination. You won’t get the location wrong as there is always super long queue outside the restaurant.