Does the “magic” of ginseng exist?Koreans grow up believing in the power of ginseng, a mysterious elixir known as insam in Korean. According to a folk tale told to children for generations, the wild ginseng root was the answer to the earnest prayer of a poor scholar during the Baekje dynasty, who wanted to save his dying mother.
More than 1,500 years later, with hundreds of ginseng products now available in stores, the supposedly miraculous effects of ginseng are hard to fully believe. In addition, the number of items available ranges from traditional dried roots and tea to modern novelties ― including ginseng chocolate and shampoo ― serving only to confuse consumers. Koreans are now limited to largely commercialized information, including the fact that Geumsan in South Chungcheong province is where the legendary root originated and has become the country’s best known region for Korean insam.
Having purchased packs of ginseng tea bags and roots without noticing any visible health improvement, I was skeptical to say the least as I took a bus to Geumsan last week. The ancient village was at the height of preparing for its 25th Geumsan Ginseng Festival, which starts today. For my tour, the Geumsan County Office’s Public Affairs department arranged for a guide, Park Hee-dong, to meet me at the rundown bus terminal in the town’s center.
Mr. Park, a slim man with a healthy brown complexion, took me to the village’s main thoroughfare, Yakcho-geori (it roughly translates as “Herb Street”). It takes 20 minutes to walk from one end of the street to the other. The street is lined with stores specializing in various ginseng products and herbal medicines, not unlike the ones found in herbal markets in Seoul.
All through the village, the distinctively bittersweet aroma of ginseng hung in the air. When Mr. Park took me to the nearest ginseng field, I realized why the scent was so familiar. It smelled like ginseng chewing gum!
Mr. Park got nervous when I approached a plant. He said all ginseng farms were off-limits. “You see, we ginseng growers don’t like it when strangers step onto our soil. We think it brings bad luck,” he explained. “We consider ginseng to be holy. Some farmers hold lavish rituals to seek heavenly blessings.”
When asked about the festival’s “on-the-field” program, which involves taking ginseng from the ground, he said the county operates a government-owned farm it uses for the event. During the festival, a shuttle bus leaves for the farm from the main street.
Geumsan-gun is a hilly county in the peninsula’s southwest, in South Chungcheong province. It encompasses 1,000 square meters, from Mount Seodae in the northeast to the Daecheong Dam in the south, over which flows the Geum River. The region’s center, Geumsan, is a village of 30,000 people, the majority of whom are engaged in the ginseng business. Mr. Park also comes from a family of ginseng growers, one of about 20,000 households in the county. His older brother grows ginseng on the family-owned farm. His brother-in-law owns a store on the main street, and his older sister sells ginseng extract.
Geumsan is the country’s largest commercial center where ginseng from all over Korea is collected and distributed and it supplies 70 to 80 percent of baeksam, or dried ginseng, to domestic and overseas markets. According to official statistics, on a traditional market day or jang, the total transactions in ginseng can amount to 6 tons. Geumsan Susam (fresh ginseng) Market, handles 150 tons of fresh ginseng a day, and Geumsan Insam Yaknyeong (herbal medicine) Market, sells 300 types of herbal medicine. Mr. Park said merchants from Gyeongdong Market, Seoul’s largest herbal market, as well as buyers from China, Japan and the United States get their supplies from the village. Last year, the festival drew 25,000 overseas visitors.
Stores along Yakcho-geori are a big part of jang and festivals. Most stores sell the government-endorsed brand, “Goryeo Insam” as well as Korean hongsam (red ginseng), a top-grade variety preserved by steaming. Vendors advised me to look for an official seal on products to establish the authenticity of Korean ginseng. They also told me to check the origin of the ginseng on its packaging.
Having noticed a stranger in town, a kind vendor offered me a pouch of ginseng juice made by boiling misam (fine root). It was nicely chilled and tasted slightly bitter ― the way ginseng should taste. When the vendor pointed out that the package had the exact address of a farm in Geumsan, I gave him a deep nod. It seemed virtually impossible to purchase Chinese or American ginseng, which are considered inferior to the Korean variety.
He said the Chinese roots are often hidden in processed products, such as tea, candy or tablets. “If you can’t see the whole fresh root, you don’t know what it is,” he said. “Here you know exactly what it is, from where, and especially that it’s fresh.”
I asked Mr. Park what made Korean ginseng different from the foreign varieties. According to research by The Society for Korean Ginseng, Korean ginseng contains a higher number of saponins, about twice that of American ginseng and three times more than the Chinese product. Saponin is an active ingredient known to have positive effects on stress, fatigue and aging and to improve clinical conditions such as cancer, hypertension and diabetes mellitus.
Mr. Park attributes such qualities of the root to its habitat, as it can only grow under certain natural conditions. “Ginseng likes water but not too much. Ginseng likes the sun but not too much,” Mr. Park said, pointing at ubiquitous black sunshades dividing a green field that stretched in all directions. “It’s very tricky, but one thing is for sure, ginseng is grown in mountainous regions, and in the south, Geumsan has the highest peak in Chungcheong province, at 904 meters above sea level.”
Passing by a street stall selling ginseng fries, I couldn’t resist the temptation. A cheerful, loud matron with short curly hair fried one root, about seven inches long and thick as an index finger, while her husband washed more out back. I was told to dip the root in molasses and invited to drink makkeolli, a traditional grain liquor, but declined. The golden batter was light, extra crispy, and not greasy at all. It was also incredibly delicious. I couldn’t believe one root was only 1,000 won ($1). On the spot, I bought a dozen pieces to take home.
Mr. Park then led me to the Geumsan Susam Market, where 97 vendors from the area sell fresh ginseng of various size and price. All the roots looked incredibly fresh and far larger than any I had seen in wholesale markets in Seoul. One medium-size variety was called “mixer,” as one root was good for a glass of juice when mixed with milk or fruit juice. A seller at Stall No. 81 said fine ginseng should have the color of slightly pink mud on its skin.
The unit of measuring fresh ginseng is a “cha,” or 750 grams. One gets 10 to 12 medium-size roots per cha, four to five extra-large. I bought one cha of “mixer” ginseng for 24,000 won.
Opposite the market was a restaurant specializing in samgyetang, or ginseng chicken soup. The dish was called “Wonjo” or “Original” as most Korean restaurants claim, but I didn’t believe it until I tasted the boiling soup. The special pot, for 12,000 won, was prepared using about a dozen ginseng roots, with other ingredients. I was shocked by the powerful flavor of ginseng deliciously numbing my entire palate. A complimentary shot of strong yet aromatic ginseng liquor was served on the side. A smiling waitress told me that during the festival, small golden bottles of this home-made liquor, usually sold for 3,000 won, would be handed out free of charge.
I asked Mr. Park if it was okay for me to consume so much ginseng in one day. “We ginseng growers think that ginseng is good food, not medicine, that does good to the body,” he replied. Ginseng farmers and merchants in Geumsan dismiss the notion that ginseng is not good for people with high blood pressure. Mr. Park drinks ginseng juice “like water” everyday to maintain his good health.
On my way back to the bus terminal, I got to sample another pouch of ginseng juice. This time it was an extract of red ginseng.
With my mouth infused with thick ginseng flavors, I returned to Seoul, completely exhausted but content, and carrying bags of ginseng products ― from fresh ginseng through fried ginseng to ginseng wine and patches.
Did all the ginseng I consumed work any magic? I recovered quickly from a long weekend of wild parties preceding my all-day trip to the south. The next day, my mother couldn’t believe how rosy and transparent my complexion had become and asked what I’d been eating. I couldn’t think of anything but the truth: “I ate more Korean ginseng of all types in one day than I normally would in a year.”
The 25th Geumsan Ginseng Festival
The Geumsan Ginseng Festival runs until Sept. 11.
For group tours, an English guide can be arranged.
For reservations or more information, visit the official Web sites, www.insamfestival.co.kr or www.geumsan.go.kr.
The festival offers various cultural programs and events, including making ginseng dishes, harvesting the roots, shopping and a ginseng sauna.
The easiest way to Geumsan is by bus.
Take the Geumsan-bound bus from the Gangnam Express Bus Terminal in Banpo-dong. The bus runs from 6:30 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. daily., and the trip takes about three hours one way. Fares vary from 9,400 won to 15,100 won.
For reservations, log on to www.exterminal.co.kr (Korean only) or call 02-535-4151.
By car, take the Busan-bound or Gyeongbu Highway and drive toward Daejeon and Biryong Junction. Get off at the Geumsan Interchange and follow the signs to the festival.
The city is also preparing for the World Ginseng Expo (www.insamexpo.or.kr) next year from Sept 22 to Oct. 15.
Susam or Saengsam (fresh ginseng)
Fresh ginseng, about 4 to 6 years old, is sold and eaten as is. It can be made into juice or added to food. It is perishable, so requires refrigeration.
Fresh ginseng is steamed and dried, and thus appears reddish in color. It can be stored for a prolonged period of time. Hongsam can work for those who have an allergy to fresh ginseng. It is further processed as an extract, powder, capsule or tea. Fresh ginseng is dipped in hot water and dried is called taegeuksam.
Baeksam (white ginseng) or Geonsam (dried ginseng)
Fresh ginseng which is about 4 to 6 years old is sun-dried. It can be stored for lengthy periods of time. Types include jiksam (dried straight), bangoksam (half-curled), goksam (curled), as shown above, and misam (fine roots).
An extremely rare and pricey variety extracted by experts deep in mountains near Mount Seorak and Taebaek. The discovery of a naturally aged root often calls for an open auction. Manually planted wild ginseng is called jangnoesansam.
by Ines Cho