Presidential samgyetang isn’t quite legendarySummertime can be a hard time for a man.
On the one hand, one’s head is constantly being turned by attractive young ladies clad for the season. (E.g.: Judge: “You wiped out 12 pedestrians. What do you have to say for yourself?” Defendant: “Well, your honor, as I was driving I couldn’t help spotting these two lasses bouncing along by the roadside in microshorts and bikini tops, so I took my eyes off the road for an instant, and...”)
On the other hand, the steamy heat beats down, leading a fellow to languish in torpor like the antihero in a backwater tropical station in a Joseph Conrad or Graham Greene novel. (As a victim of this myself, I have to confess that I would rather be swinging in a hammock drinking rum and lime than hunching over a word processor banging out this review ― but I digress.)
Unlike less civilized peoples, Koreans, to their credit, possess (alleged) remedies for the seasonal condition of being in a constant state of stoatishness, but being too zonked to do anything about it. These remedies are, in increasing order of popularity, dog soup, grilled eel and samgyetang, or ginseng chicken soup. Samgyetang is the most mainstream, and hence the most available. So: Which place to choose?
To Sok Chon (“Village of Soil” is the best translation I can get) is one of those restaurants that have been around forever (i.e., 20 years ― this is Seoul, after all). It is set in a traditional house that stretches on and on. Inside is a series of beamed-roof rooms, interspersed with courtyards and corridors. In the main courtyard, in front of a stone fish tank, an ancient tree twists skyward.
But not for the first time, I find myself appalled as I contrast the refined aesthetics of the Koreans of yore with those of their descendents. In front of said tree are a couple of utilitarian metal chairs and an electric fan. On the wooden walls are framed prints of traditional Koreana in the most hideous gilt frames. Ugly metal cupboards are placed in corners where ironbound chests once stood. Something has gone seriously wrong in the transition from “Land of Morning Calm” to “Dynamic Korea.”
Even so, this was a favored haunt of Kim Young-sam and Roh Moo-hyun (whose digs are just up the road), which may account for its popularity ― which is prodigious. At lunch, expect to queue unless you are an oldster, in which case, commendably, you are allowed to jump the line. We went in mid-afternoon, by which time the male of the species had departed, leaving the place jammed with ajumma, all clucking away like a bunch of, well, hens that have been at the ginseng.
Centerpiece of the menu is, of course, samgyetang. Recipes for poached chicken in Korea date back to the Silla Dynasty, predating Viagra by about a millennium. We are also recommended ogyetang, a broth made with some kind of medicinal wood (translation again fails me). Each dish is 12,000 won ($10).
The samgyetang comes steaming, sprinkled with chopped spring onions and sesame seeds. The bird is stuffed with a large ginseng root, a chestnut, a jujube and rice. The chicken is meaty ― not the rickety collection of skin, bone and feather one often encounters. The broth is thicker than most, and does not require the application of salt.
The ogyetang is a hot, dark broth with a touch of oil on the surface; it looks like the dark water found at the bottom of old stone wells. It does indeed offer a strong, oaky taste, and is claimed to be good for the “lower body,” though the waitress warns us that some who try it suffer from allergies. It is served with half a chicken cooked in the broth, imparting a woody taste to the bird, rather than the earthiness of the ginseng chicken. Side dishes are tangy kakkdugi and kimchi.
To accompany, we order makgeolli (5,000 won), farmers’ rice beer, which is not homemade, but comes in a plastic bottle and is served in branded lager glasses. A fitting match to the tangy kakkdugi, but not an outstanding brew. Service is well organized, if a bit rushed.
Verdict: Like a lot of Seoul’s famous old restaurants, I feel this place fails to live up to its reputation. That having been said, the samgyetang is above average, if not quite best-of-breed. And its reputed effect? Alas, I felt as langourous after eating as I did before ― makgeolli in mid-afternoon will do that to a chap.
TO SOK CHON
Tel.: (02) 737-7444.
Location: 85-1 Chebu-dong, Jongno district.
Subway: Gyeongbokgung station, line No. 3, exit 2.
Hours: 10 a.m.- 10 p.m. daily.
Dress: Come as you are.
by Andrew Salmon