Tuesday, February 27, 2007

If you have ever shopped in an Asian market and come across the root that looks — and you may have struggled with this — like a tiny, oddly shaped man in a small bottle, you have seen ginseng in its purest form. The word ginseng comes from the Mandarin “jin shen,” meaning “like a man.”

Essentially the root of a flowering plant, ginseng has long been claimed to have health benefits ranging from improved sexual stamina and prolonged life to increased memory and relaxation — although scientific studies remain inconclusive — but it can also be an important flavoring agent.

So, as we celebrate the lunar new year, why not try out a new and interesting ingredient — the ginseng available in our neighborhood Asian markets?

I first came across ginseng when I was in my early teens in New York. My father was an East Coast sales manager of ginseng products for a Korean distributor, and he brought home all sorts of samples.

My favorite was the concentrate. I loved the color, and I liked stirring it into hot water, creating a beautiful golden infusion. The aroma was balanced, but the first time I tasted it I added sugar because it was far too bitter for me and tasted of earth.

My father admonished me, saying, “Don’t put sugar in your ginseng tea. You should taste the flavor, just like any tea. You are ruining it.”

He then explained that the Chinese do not sweeten teas or herbal infusions. Instead, they offer sweets on the side in the form of pastries to sweeten the palate.

Teas, ginseng-derived included, are sipped after each bite as palate cleansers. As I became accustomed to my earthy infusion, I removed the sugar and learned to taste the ginseng and appreciate it.

When I got older, I also came to think that, true to its reputation, ginseng can be a particularly good energy booster. Unlike caffeine with its ups and downs, ginseng gave me energy that is calm and long-lasting. I began to venture out into shops and markets to find it. I also began to use ginseng in recipes.

The rarest and most prized ginseng is often wild and includes such items as Korean white and North American varieties. These are generally found in Wisconsin, Oregon, New York and Canada. Less expensive cultivated types are also reputed to have health benefits but are generally believed to be less potent than their wild counterparts.

Whether cultivated or wild, the most popular of these species include Panax ginseng (China, Korea, Japan and Russia) and Panax quinquefolius (North America). The word “panax” is derived from the Greek word “panakeia,” meaning all-healing — the root of the word panacea.

Dating back more than 5,000 years, Panax ginseng originated in ancient China, specifically Manchuria. Panax quinquefolius, on the other hand, originated in North America and has been used by American Indians for centuries as an herbal medicine and aphrodisiac. Indeed, it is believed that Indians used ginseng as their very own Love Potion No. 9, rubbing it on their bodies to bring back estranged wives.

Ginseng is available in several different forms, including fresh and preserved in brine or in brandy. It is also available dried whole or sliced, in capsule form, candied, as an onyx-colored concentrate with the consistency of syrup, and as chewing gum.

These are generally sold in specialty shops in Chinatown. Some are geared toward those who like the curious earthy taste but may not be so serious about the product and its perceived health benefits. In that category, I include ginseng sold in tiny single shot glass cylinders (snap off the tip and drink) and the gum.

Dried ginseng can be very bitter. Sliced, it is chewed raw (and tolerated) or added to recipes for a special bitter flavor note. Capsules are taken orally like medicine. The concentrated form is stirred into hot water and consumed as an infusion.

Fresh ginseng root (available in Chinatown markets or from Internet sources) can be sliced and lightly pickled or served as a fresh salad. (My recipe for this follows.) Ginseng is, then, somewhat akin the pungent and versatile ginger root in Asian cooking but less known and less understood as such in the West.

Two of my favorite recipes featuring ginseng come from Korea. One is a chicken stuffed with jujubes (red dates), pine nuts and sliced fresh ginseng and served with sushi rice. The other is a salad of pickled fresh ginseng. Both are delicious and well worth making.

Note that fresh ginseng is less bitter than the dried varieties. As the root dries, the flavors become more concentrated and the bitter notes more pronounced.

Chicken, ginseng and jujube soup

This recipe was adapted from my book, “Essentials of Asian Cuisine” (Simon & Schuster).

1 chicken (2 to 2½ pounds)

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 ounces ginseng, fresh, preserved in brandy or dry slices

8 small garlic cloves, crushed and peeled

½ cup white short-grain sticky (glutinous) rice


8 chestnuts, boiled and peeled (if dried, soaked overnight)

8 jujubes (red dates), soaked in water to soften (see note)

2 tablespoons lightly toasted pine nuts

2 scallions, root and dark green tops trimmed and thinly sliced into rounds

Rinse chicken, pat dry and season with salt and pepper, inside and out. Stuff chicken cavity with ginseng, garlic and rice. Truss chicken so none of the ingredients can come out while cooking.

Place chicken in a pot and add 2 quarts water, chestnuts and jujubes. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until chicken is cooked through and fork tender, about 1½ hours.

Present whole chicken at table, then dispense chunks of it in individual bowls with a little of everything. Instruct guests to adjust seasoning to taste with salt and pepper and garnish their servings with pine nuts and scallions, if they wish. Makes 4 servings.

Note: Jujubes, or red dates, are sold in Asian markets.

Freshly pickled ginseng (Ginseng salad)

1 pound fresh ginseng, peeled and thinly sliced

1 teaspoon Kosher salt


1 cup rice vinegar

1/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon Korean dried chili powder

Cooked medium-grain sushi rice and roast chicken or pork

Place ginseng in a colander set over a bowl. Add salt and toss. Let drain and cure for 1 hour. Rinse under cold running water and pat dry.

In a large bowl, whisk together the vinegar and sugar until sugar is completely dissolved, about 5 minutes. Add chili powder and stir. Add ginseng and toss. Serve with sushi rice and roast chicken or pork on the side. Makes 4 servings.

Ginseng infusion

1 teaspoon ginseng concentrate (see note)

Place ginseng concentrate in a mug. Bring 1 cup water to a gentle boil and pour it into the mug. Stir until concentrate is fully distributed and sip slowly. Makes 1 cup.

Note: Ginseng concentrate is sold in small jars in Asian markets.

• Corinne Trang is author of “Authentic Vietnamese Cooking” and “Essentials of Asian Cuisine” (Simon & Schuster) and “The Asian Grill” (Chronicle Books).

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