There's a season that calls Chicagoans to gaze out the window and curse the weather. No, it's not the bone-rattling winter. It's summer. During these hot, humid, unpredictable months, in which the thermometer swings between 60 and 100 degrees, Mother Nature can never win.
Korean summer food is a lot like Chicago summer. It's hot when you expect it to be cold, and it's cold when you expect it to be hot. It stokes you into perspiration, it chills you into brain freeze. It's simple and complex, spicy and sweet, sour and creamy. You just never know what to expect, so you learn to enjoy it all.
Chicago's Korean food goes way beyond bulgogi (grilled marinated rib-eye) and bibimbap (mixed rice with vegetables and runny egg), though those two dishes are promoted heavily to Westerners. That's a shame because, with almost 5,000 years of history, Korean cuisine offers layers of culture and philosophy, all stirred with a good dose of practicality and ingenuity. You'll find all those aspects in Korea's traditional summer dishes — all available in Chicago.
- Photos: Summer Korean dishes
- Tips for Korean dining
- Dining and Drinking
- West Ridge
4201 West Lawrence Avenue, Harwood Heights, IL 60706, USA
5220 North Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL 60625, USA
5828 North Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL 60659, USA
4200 North Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL 60618, USA
3311 West Bryn Mawr Avenue, Chicago, IL 60659, USA
3307 West Bryn Mawr Avenue, Chicago, IL 60659, USA
3257 West Bryn Mawr Avenue, Chicago, IL 60659, USA
Here's your quick guide to cooling Korean dishes: what to order, how to eat, where to go — and why.
Sam gye tang
(Pronounced "sum-ghere-tah-ng"): Ginseng chicken soup
Boiled chicken in a steaming stone bowl may sound like the last thing you crave on a sweltering, 90 percent humidity afternoon. But that's exactly what Koreans line up for during the summer doldrums.
Sam gye tang is young chicken or hen stuffed with glutinous rice, garlic, jujube (a prune-y maroon date), ginseng and sometimes ginger, then simmered in its own fat and juices. The two vital "warming" ingredients, ginseng and garlic, are meant to inject you with nutrients lost to excessive sweating, as well as regulate blood flow and metabolism.
The idea of fighting heat with more heat ties to the principle of ki (qi in Chinese) — or life force, a sort of energy that flows within all living systems. Traditional beliefs say our well-being depends on how balanced your ki is. So if your surrounding environment's essence is hot, you must adjust your internal temperature to maintain health and balance, or so the idea goes.
The best place for sam gye tang is Ssyal Ginseng House in Albany Park. Like all sam gye tang places, Ssyal carts the stone pot over to you — a whole bird sitting in burbling broth, served alongside fresh chopped green onions and coarse, pepper-flaked salt ($13.99).
Ssyal's Cornish hen actually includes a whole stem of ginseng, unlike some other places that mutilate the ginseng into a barely 1-inch stump. At least two whole apricot-sized jujubes tumble out of the bird, licorice-sweet and plumped with chicken juices. The stuffed rice is cooked just right — not clumped into a doughy fist, but still sticky enough to hold together for a chewy mouthful, or mash into the broth.
Scatter the green onions over the hen, then taste a small spoonful of the broth. Season the broth with the provided salt, but leave some for dipping white meat. Slurp the broth, letting the vapors unfurl into your face. Sweat it out, then tear into the bird with your fingers. Pick up chopsticks once in a while to pop a kkakdugi (cubed radish kimchee) into your mouth. Pick up a spoon to slurp more broth and rice. Sweat, repeat.
Ssyal Ginseng House, 4201 W. Lawrence Ave., 773-427-5296; lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday
(Pronounced "naeng-mee-un"): Cold noodles
For a simple, plain dish of noodles and sparse toppings originating from North Korea, naeng myun is wonderfully diverse. The ingredients for noodles vary, from buckwheat to arrowroot to sweet potatoes, sometimes tinted with green tea or seaweed. Toppings and broth differ too. But the two main versions are the mul naeng myun (literally "water chilled noodles") and the bibim naeng myun ("mixed chilled noodles"). Want something refreshing, tangy and quenching?
Go for the mul naeng myun. Want something a little spicier, a little drier and exploding with more flavor? Shoot for the bibim. Chicago offers both versions and more, and does them well.
Mul naeng myun is typically a tangle of long buckwheat noodles in chilled beef broth, waiting to be uncurled with steel chopsticks. You'll have vinegar and wasabi-like mustard on the side to season your icy broth. Bibim naeng myun comes dry and dressed in a spicy red pepper sauce, but with similar toppings: half a boiled egg, thin slices of beef, shaved radish, crisp Korean pear and slivered cucumbers. Both versions typically come in large stainless bowls that keep the contents as cold as possible.
Da Rae Jung in Lincoln Square, a nondescript shop squeezed into a strip mall, specializes in Hamhung-style naeng myun ($9-10). They make their noodles in-house, shipping the flour from South Korea. Get their raw skate bibim naeng myun, because that's what Hamhung (a city in North Korea) is known for. The special noodles, drenched in a light, puckery red sauce, are sprinkled liberally with sesame seeds and topped with sour kimchee and smooth pieces of jerky-like raw skate.
Solga in West Ridge offers chik noodles — a blend of buckwheat and kudzu, a Japanese arrowroot — that are earthier, inkier, chewier ($10). Cho Sun Ok in North Center serves yet another variety: yeolmu naeng myun ($10), basically mul naeng myun with fermented bitter radish greens added in for an even crisper, tangier broth. The best part is the creamy egg yolk. Mash the yolk just a little into the sauce or the broth, add a tiny squirt of vinegar, maybe a sliver of citrusy kimchee — and aaahh.
Da Rae Jung, 5220 N. Lincoln Ave., 773-907-9155; lunch and dinner Monday, Wednesday-Sunday
Solga, 5828 N. Lincoln Ave., 773-728-0802; lunch and dinner Monday-Sunday