“Drink, it’s good for you.” When you’re a kid, that phrase alone will send off ringing of loud alarm bells in your head. Even if the concoction handed to you smelled divine, you would absolutely refuse to take it and inevitably make your mom mad, so mad that you wound up drinking it anyway. When I was a kid, it wasn’t a vitamin loaded veggie smoothie that brought upon this reaction, but rather a cup of hot ginseng tea laced with honey. The scent of brewing ginseng was something quite familiar to every household; it was the staple “health drink” and considered the remedy of many common ills and ailments.
What is ginseng, anyway? Ginseng is insam (인삼, 人蔘) in Korean, and literally means “man root” due to its shape and form. It is a plant whose roots are mainly used for medicinal purposes. Historical records from the Joseon Dynasty assume that cultivation of ginseng had started in the early 12th century, although wild mountain ginseng had been around long before that.
People have discovered the medicinal benefits of ginseng early on. Ginseng is said to be good for the liver, so it’s a favorite ingredient for hangover cure drinks. It is also known to be good to alleviate exhaustion and stress, and has properties that are good for diabetes. It strengthens your immunity system and blood circulation; it is truly a “go-all” plant.
There are several countries that cultivate ginseng. The ginseng from Korea is officially called “Korea Ginseng” (고려인삼) and is especially well known for its high quality. Gifts of Korea Ginseng have been given to royalty of other countries, ever since centuries ago.
Korea Ginseng is largely divided into the categories of white ginseng and red ginseng. White ginseng is ginseng that has been dried; red ginseng is ginseng that has been steamed before drying. Red ginseng is especially good for blood circulation; making red ginseng tea a must for those who always have cold hands and feet. The taste of red ginseng is also more concentrated than that of regular white ginseng.
Among all ginseng, ginseng found in the wild are the most expensive because of their rarity. Because they are found in the mountains, they are called sansam (산삼, mountain ginseng) in Korean. The cost of a root of wild mountain ginseng can be much more than the gain from winning the lottery, and the discovery always shows up on the news. (The photo above was taken this June. The wild ginseng discovered was evaluated at the price of approximately 100 million won.) The year and shape of the root decides the price, which are carefully examined by experts. People who go hunting for wild ginseng are called simmani (심마니), a profession that requires much expertise and a whole lot of patience. Ginseng which have been planted in the mountains and let to grow freely are not true sansam and are called differently: jangnoesam (장뇌삼).
Ginseng is used in traditional medicine, but also in other culinary efforts. Probably the most famous use of ginseng in a dish would be samgyetang (삼계탕), Korean chicken and ginseng soup. Ginseng is also eaten dipped in batter and fried, after having been pre-marinated in honey. Also, small ginseng roots can be eaten raw. They are cleaned and are usually eaten with honey to balance out the bitterness. Cleaning consists of washing out the dirt – the peel is never removed for its many medicinal properties.
Ginseng has become such a staple ingredient that it is considered a standard flavor and scent. You’ll find candy, chewing gum, ice cream, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, skincare products; the list goes on and on. I personally find the scent very soothing. The strength of the scent differs by product, so you’ll definitely find something to your taste.
Ginseng tea can be made at home by brewing the actual root or made by using the many powder tea packets available on the market. It usually is too bitter to drink on its own – honey is the best sweetener, as it is a “good match” according to traditional medicinal theories. Besides the actual root, there are extract and pills for easy consumption as well.
The latest ginseng product I like is a macchiato with red ginseng. It’s not red ginseng flavored, but actually dosed with a dollop of sweetened red ginseng extract. It’s like the triple kick; all the beneficial characteristics of ginseng with coffee’s caffeine and sugar to boot – a true waker-upper!
Whether you choose to go the ultra-healthy route and drink pure ginseng extract, or choose to just enjoy the scent or flavor of ginseng, it’s definitely an essential part of Korea worth experiencing. If you’re not so sure, try with a mild tea or ginseng candy; it’s a great way to relieve the kimchi smell after meals.
More information is available at the Korea Ginseng Corporation: