20 Aug 2014
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Hot Soup For A Hot Summer’s Day

Many Koreans and Korean-Americans swear by ginseng-chicken soup called "sam gye tang" to combat heat from the inside out

Hot Soup For A Hot Summer’s Day Hot Soup For A Hot Summer’s Day Hot Soup For A Hot Summer’s Day Hot Soup For A Hot Summer’s Day Hot Soup For A Hot Summer’s Day

What’s better on a really hot day than gulping down an ice-cold beverage, gobbling up some ice cream or eating or drinking just about anything cold? Well, for many Fort Lee residents—particularly those of Korean descent—the answer might surprise you: a piping-hot bowl of chicken soup.

Sam gye tang, which Koreans and many Korean-Americans consume in great quantities during the hot summer months, isn’t just any chicken soup though. The name of the dish literally means “ginseng and chicken soup,” and it’s considered a summertime dish.

“Basically it’s a young hen, and what we do is we stuff it like a turkey with dates, ginseng, sticky rice and barley,” said the owner of in Fort Lee, Daeman Yoon, 28, who only serves the tang, or soup, during summer. “Ginseng is obviously very good for you. It’s good for stamina; it’s good for your body. It’s got Vitamin C inside. It’s just a very healthy dish. Everything balances together.”

There’s a Korean saying, which roughly translated means “when the weather is hot, we want more hot stuff,” explained (KAAFL) president Gina Yoon (no relation to Daeman Yoon). “And I’m not talking about spicy stuff. When it’s 85 or 90 degrees, when [many Korean seniors] have soup, they say, ‘Oh, I feel so cool.’”

She added that the ginseng in sam gye tang—the dish is stewed for about an hour and the ginseng is therefore very soft and almost sweet tasting—is thought to be good for the skin, for stress, tiredness, depression, high blood pressure, dizziness and even serious diseases such as diabetes and cancer.

KAAFL vice president Kathy Lee explained that the theory behind eating something hot on a hot day is akin to “respecting nature’s way of how your body reacts, whether it’s hot weather, whether giving birth or having a fever.”

“Instead of fighting it, it’s respecting what you’re going through and working with that, I think,” Lee said.

Fort Lee acupuncturist and herbalist Ho-Jung Song of at 185 Bridge Plaza North further explained the theory as follows:

  • Our bodies need to be balanced internally and externally. If that balance is achieved, we are healthy. When it’s not achieved, we tend to get sick.
  • In the summer, our body temperature is relatively higher than in other seasons for obvious reasons. However the inside of the body is on the colder side—even though you don’t feel that way—because when it’s hot, the body releases energy through perspiration.
  • To balance that out, you eat hot soup or drink hot beverages.
  • When it’s cold, the opposite applies.

Song likened the theory, a version of which can be found in many traditional Asian cultures, to the relative temperature within a flame: The inner part of the flame is usually a lower temperature than the outer part of the flame, he said. That’s because all of the heat energy is escaping.

“The surface is really, really hot,” Song said. “But the inside is actually not as hot. It’s releasing all the energy; it’s the same thing for your body.”

Daeman Yoon’s Korean chefs at San Chon, which literally translated means “mountain village,” make their own chicken broth for the sam gye tang, which is served boiling, often bubbling hot. Yoon said he makes exactly 24 servings a day.

“And whenever it goes out, that’s it; it’s sold out,” he said.

On the day Patch visited the restaurant on the second floor of Fort Lee Plaza on Lemoine Ave., Yoon said he had just four servings left, and it was only mid-afternoon.

Yoon also said sam gye tang is a particularly popular dish for breakfast, “especially when people go golfing.”

“A lot of Korean guys, when they go golfing, they’ll eat this for breakfast because it gives you a lot of energy,” he said, adding that he doesn’t get a lot of non-Korean American customers asking for the dish, “because they don’t really know about it.”

But what anyone who has ever stepped foot in a Korean restaurant does know about when it comes to Korean dining is the uniquely Korean style of serving the main dish with a table full of small, shared side dishes, which can be anything from a wide variety of pickled or fresh vegetables to tofu, among many other possibilities.

“What Korean people like to do is they like to balance their meals,” Yoon said. “If you eat X amount of meat or X amount of chicken, you want to balance it out with X amount of vegetables at the same time.”

Side dishes are also seasonal, Yoon said, but some form of kimchi—which comes in so many varieties it could be the subject of an article all its own—is a constant.

“There’s summer side dishes I give out, and there’s winter side dishes, so whatever vegetable is in season,” Yoon said. “Kimchi’s all the time. It’s easier in Korea because of the farmers over there. They just [serve] whatever comes out of the farm at that time.”

Cold Noodles

Seemingly going against the theory of eating hot foods on hot days, as Song explained it, is another dish often served in Korean restaurants when the weather heats up—naeng myun.

Literally meaning “cold noodles,” naeng myun is made with buckwheat noodles in a cold beef broth. Brisket meat; radish, Kirby cucumber and Asian pear slices and a hard-boiled egg round out the dish, which is served so cold, it often comes with chunks of ice still floating in the broth. Add a little vinegar to taste, along with some gyoza sauce—made with wasabi, mustard and other pungent ingredients—both of which come on the side, and you’ve got one refreshing dish that seems to combine savory and sweet flavors perfectly.

But Yoon said although it’s technically a traditional Korean winter dish, he sells more naeng myun during the summer months.

“Nowadays people eat this on hot days too,” he said. “I sell this a lot in summertime.”

Lee said of the dish, “Basically it does the same thing [as sam gye tang] with the opposite effect,” but that “people in general don’t know this concept or theory.”

“Just because we’re hot, we always offer cold drinks and iced coffees and cold dishes like the noodles,” she said. “So they do sell more naeng myun in the summer than any other time because of that. But it’s technically not a summer dish.”

Yoon is particularly proud of his restaurant’s naeng myun, saying that what sets it apart from the same dish served in some other restaurants are the noodles, which he makes using a special machine purchased directly from Korea enabling him to make them fresh, as opposed to the frozen, packaged variety found in Korean grocery stores such as and used to make the dish in some other restaurants.

“You’ve got the texture; that’s the difference between the frozen noodles and the fresh ones,” Yoon said. “Basically it’s powder and it’s buckwheat. I get it in powder form, I mix it up and put it in the machine, and it just quirts it out like spaghetti noodles. A lot of other Korean restaurants get their buckwheat noodles in frozen packs. But what I do here is I make the fresh broth, and I make the fresh noodles too.”

Mixing Hot and Cold

San Chon also offers a kalbi—Korean-style barbecued beef short ribs—and naeng myun daily lunch special combination for just $14.99, a particularly good price considering kalbi goes for about $10 a pound at H-Mart, according to Yoon, who said the lunch combo is therefore a big seller.

Traditionally eaten in sequence with the naeng myun served after the kalbi, Yoon, who comes across as anything but traditional, said he recently discovered that the two are especially good when eaten together—at the same time.

To try sam gye tang (if you’re among the lucky 24 on any given day), the naeng myun or the kalbi-naeng myun lunch combo, visit San Chon Korean Restaurant located on the second floor of Fort Lee Plaza at 1550 Lemoine Ave.; 201-585-9115.

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