I look at the perky girl behind the beauty counter in amazement and almost laugh into her perfectly made-up face. Had she not even told me the super ingredient in the latest super cream, the distinct smell pervades so many childhood memories it’s hard to miss. “Here, try some,” she says dabbing a bit onto my hand. “It’s called Sulwhasoo and it’s made from ginseng, a plant grown in the Korean Peninsula. Apparently it is one of the most precious medicinal plants around.”
Growing up, sun and sand was always the preferred prescription for whatever ailed me. But with a mother who walked on the shady side of any street to prevent excess sun exposure to her admittedly flawless complexion, her cure-all was ginseng. Used in teas, elixirs and now beauty creams, the ginseng root has been known to reduce mental stress and anxiety, increase mental clarity and alertness, reduce fatigue, and improve athletic endurance. With these kind of benefits it’s a wonder ginseng isn’t more readily used in Western health regimes. But anyone who has experienced the fragrant root can attest to why it’s not the most popular remedy.
Case in point? Me.
My Southern California hometown is close to downtown LA, which means we can find a Chinese medicine specialist in every other strip mall down Western Boulevard. Nestled between donut shops, Orange Julius stands, bail bonds outfits and optometry stores, one has a cornucopia of alternative medicine practices to choose from. One Saturday afternoon after I complain of fatigue to my parents, we trek the 30 minutes to the edge of Koreatown to meet with Mr. Lee. After a brief intro that includes Mr. Lee sizing up my physique (equal to a poodle getting examined at the Westminster Dog Show) and a quick check of my pulse and glands, Mr. Lee recommends a mix of roots, worts and powders and tells us to come back in a week.
Seven days later we return to the dark basement office of Mr. Lee, who presents us with forty or so hermetically sealed bags of liquid akin to the color of melted chocolate after it had been diluted with water. In other words, not pleasant. My only instructions were to drink one pack twice a day, hot or cold, it was up to me. The smell in his musty office isn’t exactly like sitting in a field of potpourri but I figure two glasses of this concoction can’t be any worse than drinking drugstore cough syrup, right? Or so I think until I take that first sip the next morning.
Bitter. Bland. Powdery. Sour. Herbaceous. Aromatic. Mud. As the slightly warmed liquid runs down my throat, I nearly gag from surprise. What IS this? There is no way I can do this every day for the next month. I peer over the mug of juice at my parents, who are suppressing giggles. They had grown up with their share of Chinese herbal medicines back in Korea and to see their American-born daughter having to endure the same fate is quite amusing. Suck it up, they tell me. It will work.
They say parents know best and I have to admit my mood and energy level increase significantly just a few weeks after drinking the ginseng elixir. In fact, I’ve become such a believer that I try ginseng in other forms to cure my incessantly cold hands, a headache that doesn’t seem to go away, and as a detox from too many late nights subsisting on cocktails and late night eats. But seeing as it’s not for the faint of heart, be glad there are plenty of alternatives you can try without having to down “the sludge.”
Koreans swear by samgyetang, their version of chicken soup, made with ginseng and often served during the hot summer months to replace nutrients lost by excessive sweating and physical exertion. Like traditional chicken soups, samgyetang can also cure the common cold and prevent future sickness. Made with plenty of ginger and garlic, those adverse to the strong ginseng flavor (me, me, me) will love this soothing dish.
Getting the benefits of ginseng through food rather than a viscous, brown drink? That’s something that’s easy to swallow.
For the recipe for samgyetang, click here.