For centuries, perhaps even millennia, the ginseng root has been used in Asia for its medicinal qualities, particularly its ability to retain or restore the body’s Yin–Yang balance; for a time, it was valued more highly by weight than gold. Even today, Korean ginseng is much sought after on the global market, due to the country’s ideal climatic conditions; known locally as insam (인삼), much of it is grown in the Chungcheong provinces under slanted nets of black plastic. The roots take anything up to six years to mature, and suck up so much nutrition from the soil that, once harvested, no more ginseng can be planted in the same field for over a decade.
The health benefits of ginseng have been much debated in recent years, and most of the evidence in favour of the root is anecdotal rather than scientific. There are, nonetheless, hordes of admirers, and ginseng’s stock rose further when it rode the crest of the “healthy living” wave that swept across Korea just after the turn of the millennium. Today it’s possible to get your fix in pills, capsules, jellies, chewing gum or boiled sweets, as well as the more traditional tea or by eating the root raw. As the purported benefits depend on the dosage and type of ginseng used (red or white), it’s best to consult a practitioner of oriental medicines, but one safe – and delicious – dish is samgyetang (삼계탕), a tasty and extremely healthy soup made with a ginseng-stuffed chicken, available across the land. Or for a slightly quirky drink, try mixing a sachet of ginseng granules and a spoon of brown sugar into hot milk – your very own ginseng latte.