Former Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun had a troubled life. Despite his distinguished career as a human rights lawyer and admirable commitment to social activism, his presidency was disastrous and his final years were plagued by scandal. In 2009 he committed suicide by throwing himself off a cliff, leaving a note of apology for his family and supporters. Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that he was well known for his love of comfort food, specifically chicken soup from Tosokchon restaurant.
Tosokchon is located a convenient fifteen minute walk from the Blue House, near Gyeongbukgong palace. The most memorable feature of the building is the line outside, which hugs the side of the building on weekdays and snakes around the back corner on weekends. Despite a seating capacity of 450 and wait staff who move at lightning speed, there’s always a crowd. Tables are communal, with cushioned floor seating and shared pots of kimchi. The regular menu fits comfortably on a small wooden plaque. The fame and crowds are definitely a part of the experience: people exchange pleasantries with each other at the tables, but the staff is too busy to chitchat with anyone (except, presumably, heads of state).
The signature dish is samgyetang, a soup made from a whole chicken stuffed with rice, ginseng, dates, and chestnuts. The broth is mild but richer than it looks, especially after the rice stuffing is mixed in. Each serving comes in a hefty clay pot with a side dish of salt and pepper for dipping the chicken. The skin is left on the bird, which makes the flesh deliciously tender and savory, though I removed it before eating due to health and texture preferences.
My companion for the meal ordered the ogolgye, which is the same dish made with black chicken. The flesh of black chickens is actually a dark grayish-blue color, and is believed to have medicinal properties, though the flavor is almost exactly the same (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silkie). Each dish in its entirety is a hearty meal for one person, though the chickens are small. The meal ends with a shot of ginseng-infused soju, to aid the digestion (of course).
Fans of other Asian chicken soups, such as Indonesian soto ayam or Filipino tinolang manok, might find samgyetang bland in comparison. The ginseng in the soup at Tosokchon isn’t overwhelming, and those who find that too much ginseng gives food a dusty or overly herbal flavor should be satisfied with the light touch in spicing. The dates and chestnuts add pleasantly to the consistency of the dish but don’t stand out in taste. The total effect is tasty and filling but not especially exciting. This is an excellent meal for anyone who is uncomfortable with Korean foods that are spicy, salty or unfamiliar.
I wasn’t sick on the day I ate at Tosokchon, but I’m confident that their samgyetang could soothe the worst cold. Though samgyetang is usually considered by Koreans to be a summer food, my Western sensibilities would be more inclined to sit down with a steaming bowl of it on a cold winter day.
Overall, Tosokchon is a charming restaurant, and the food is well prepared and satisfying. The prices are a bit steeper than neighborhood restaurants offering the same dishes, ₩14,000 for the samgyetang and ₩20,000 for the ogolgye, but the experience is worth the extra money. It was the President’s favorite chicken soup joint, after all.
To get to “Tosokchon”, take subway Line 3 to Gyeongbokgung Station, Exit 2. The restaurant is on the left side of the street.
Editors’ Note: This is Kathy Fidler’s last review for 3WM (hopefully its just a moratorium) and we’d like to thank her for her contribution to the project. We wish her and her family all the best in the future. Thanks Kathy.