Root of the matter

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 October, 2010, 12:00am

It's probably safe to assume that ginseng isn't consumed just for its flavour - it has a distinctive, bitter taste that is not to everyone's liking. The root, though, can fetch very high prices because of the myriad curative powers attributed to it - among other things, it's believed ginseng increases sexual prowess and longevity, boosts energy levels and cures cancer and diabetes. Scientific studies suggest that at least some of the medicinal values attributed to ginseng are valid.

The shape, cultivation methods and age of a root determine the price. The ideal specimen resembles a person, with a small knob at the top, a proportionately sized torso and evenly placed branches, for the legs and arms.

All varieties of the root require precise growing conditions in a cool, unpolluted atmosphere with clean water. Cultivated ginseng is large enough to market when the plant is about six years old. Wild ginseng grows more slowly, has stronger medicinal powers and commands much higher prices, with the oldest being the most expensive.

Fresh ginseng is fairly inexpensive but the root gains value after processing. The most labour-intensive processing requires trimming the ginseng of the excess tendrils, steaming it over several days, which gives it a reddish hue, then sun-drying it, which intensifies the colour and potency. The best dried roots are sold whole; while lower-quality ginseng is ground to a powder or sliced.

Ginseng is grown in cool, mountainous parts of Korea, China, Japan and the United States, and the root is either cooling or heating, depending on the country it comes from. It should be consumed in moderation and, if you're taking it as medicine, it should be under the advice of a traditional Chinese medicine doctor.

Fresh ginseng has a milder flavour than the dried root. It's used in samgyetang, Korean ginseng and chicken soup. For a Chinese dish, simmer slices of fresh ginseng for several hours with lean pork meat, a boney type of fish and red dates, then drink the broth.