It’s summer time in LA, and though the heat and humidity is nowhere near the mercury and barometer levels in some other places, it’s still hot. We had a few days of overcast relief, but after that, it’s been sweltering.
When it’s hot outside, I lose my appetite. I’m not sure whether heat just naturally does that to a body, or I feel full from all the liquids I drink to keep cool and hydrated. Whatever it is, when it’s hot, all I want is ice cold liquids. Iced tea. Diet Coke. Fruit Water. But not plain water. Plain water makes me nauseous.
But there’s only so much energy a body can contract from a liquid diet, so eat we must. It’s barbecue that first comes to mind when thinking of summer time foods. However, the idea of standing over a fiery grill, then working myself to cut then chew steaming, hot steaks does not appeal to me on days that the mercury creeps up into the high 90s. Even in the high 80s. Barbecue doesn’t sound refreshing.
Salads are refreshing. Sushi can be refreshing. In Korea, soup is also refreshing – The word is shyun-hae. It’s a hard sensation to describe – how a steaming bowl of boiling hot clear broth can be refreshing, but it is. And there might be a little to do with the fact that the heat from the steam causes us to sweat, which alone is a cooling effect on the body. In fact, ???, sahm-gyae-tahng, a chicken and ginseng soup, is popular during the summer for Koreans. Of course, all those Korean bahn-chan are perfect in summer, since most of them are cold, and spicy.
Sahm-gyae-tahng is a clear broth chicken soup with whole baby or very young chickens. Mom is making this often now, since sahm-gyae-tahng has “medicinal” properties, and is great for pregnant women (no, not me!). It’s the protein from the chicken meat, the minerals from the chicken bones, and most importantly, the “medicine” from the ginseng. I don't know what the medicine is, but like all Korean moms, my Mom always tells me "that's what they say." They who?
The chickens are stuffed with washed but raw sweet rice which will eventually “steam” within the bird, dates, garlic, and ginseng. The dates aren’t the familiar dark, purplish-brown, wrinkled oblong dates from the Middle East and California. Korean dates are red, fat, and round, and are not as sticky sweet. As the dates cook in the broth, fruit flesh inside softens to a sweet paste, and the date becomes like a little red candy truffle. They are called jujubes, which always make me wonder if the inventor of the jujubees, the movie candy, was Korean – LOL! I will venture a guess that the dates have some sort of fiber benefit, which adds to the “medicinal-ness” of the sahm-gyae-tahng.
I doubt that when sahm-gyae-tahng was first made centuries ago in the countryside, the Koreans knew about antioxidants and the like – they just knew that there was something good about garlic and ginseng. Koreans love garlic, and according to the largest garlic farmer in California (up there in Gilroy, but can’t remember his name), his biggest consumers are Koreans! That explains why I love garlic, I guess, but I cannot stand ginseng, even if it relieves fatigue, helps with depression, and fights anemia and diabetes. Ginseng, not to be confused with ginger, tastes like mud.
Young chicken meat is already tender, but the soup is still simmered for a very long time at low heat until the meat falls off the bones and the entire bird basically bursts open with the cooked sweet rice that has now expanded to about three times its volume. Mom is a busy lady these days in her garden and on the golf course, so she shortens the cooking time by doing it all in a pressure cooker. Smart lady.
Everyone gets their own whole chicken in their bowl along with some of the rice, dates, and ginseng. The soup is now basically a fragrant chicken broth, but with absolutely no seasoning. Salt, pepper and sesame seeds are served on the table so each person can season the soup to taste. I also dip the chicken meat in the salt and pepper, like tong-dahk.
Mom probably considers it blasphemy, but I also dipped it in sriracha ;)