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Pick your own ginseng

The local Samgyejang restaurants all sell chicken ginseng soup, which is traditionally considered a delicacy. Photos: Shutterstock

The local Samgyejang restaurants all sell chicken ginseng soup, which is traditionally considered a delicacy. Photos: Shutterstock

My lumbar region told me to take it easy. Not to strain. To be patient. And don’t overdo it. Feet splayed and legs akimbo in the orthodox ergonomic stance, I twisted and yanked.

My face twisted into a wide grimace of excruciating pain; it needed every ounce in my body to pull in the monster from the deep. My biceps bulged and my neck muscles engirded with effort. Anything that could pucker, puckered. In the earth below I saw the head of my opponent. With one last heave, I dragged him up into the fresh air.

Exhausted by my exertions, seldom-used muscle masses crying out for a rest, a hand patted my sore shoulders and  a voice congratulated me. I had landed my first ginseng root.

Picking your own strawberries is much easier than picking your own ginseng. It’s very hard to suffer a harrowing hernia collecting a punnet of strawberries. A prolapse is an occupational hazard when you go ginseng harvesting.

Geumsan in the Chungcheongnam-do province, three hours south of Seoul, is the largest producer of ginseng or ‘insam’ in South Korea. It cultivates over 80 per cent of the country’s annual $240m ginseng business.

Every September, the small town celebrates its famous anthropomorphic roots with a 10-day ginseng fair and market. On sale are hundreds of tons of red and white ginseng (red being boiled version of the raw form) and every conceivable by-product – ginseng tea, shampoo, soap, jam, skin balm, chocolates, cookies, cereal bars, sports energy bars and even chips.

It comes in every possible form – raw, peeled, shaved, ready sliced, honeyed, wind-dried, sun-dried, skewered, fried, steamed and bottled. The local Samgyejang restaurants all sell chicken ginseng soup which my guide, Mr Kim, described as being “traditionally considered a delicacy. Once”.

One hundred shops sell six tons of ginseng every day. “The World Ginseng Expo” is when the majority of ginseng is bought and sold in South Korea. It is the country’s biggest ginseng trade fair. Eighty per cent of all South Korea’s ‘baeksam’ (dried processed ginseng) and ‘saengsam’ (unprocessed ginseng) is traded at Geumsan.

To celebrate my first ginseng my guide, Mr Chun-Yeon, poured me some ‘Kumsan’ ginseng tonic juice. And gave me the hard sell.

“Very high quality! Top quality! Low price!”  he laughed. “Make you very happy. Hundred per cent organic. Very healthy. You feel new man!” He gave me a knowing wink. Very good for brain and body!”

He opened his eyes wide and meaningfully. Man to man.

South Korean ginseng is considered the best in the world.  American ginseng is columnar and Chinese or Siberian ginseng is carrot-shaped while Korean ginseng resembles the human body.  Albeit a chronically arthritic one.

‘Insam’ means ‘man’ in Korean. The Chinese call ginseng ‘renshen’ (essence of man).

The Geumsan festival is not just a ginseng symposium. It is also a celebration of ginseng. It even stages a contest for the most interesting ginseng root. “Evaluating ginseng is very subjective,” explained one of the judges. “The ideal shape should look like two slim ladies with shapely legs dancing together in the wind.”

Mr Chun-Yeon’s family has been making ginseng tonic juice for a century. He is the 16th son to make it. ‘Sul’ is the alcoholic version, This straw-coloured 13 per cent wine is made from natural mountain water and rice. Most other ginseng wine is distilled liqueur, usually potato or rice vodka, flavoured with ginseng. One make contains gold shavings.

A red ginseng farm near Geumsan, in the Chungcheongnam-do province, three hours south of Seoul – the largest producer of ginseng.A red ginseng farm near Geumsan, in the Chungcheongnam-do province, three hours south of Seoul – the largest producer of ginseng.

American ginseng is columnar while Korean ginseng resembles the human body

Most South Koreans drink ice-cold brown ginseng tea. Two grammes of ginseng a day taken before meals is meant to keep the doctor away. Traditionally, ginseng must be taken regularly over a long period if the true benefits are to be felt by the individual. And the industry. Although undoubtedly high in saponin the jury is still out among the scientific community about its serious medicinal claims. Which range from a cancer cure to an anti- coagulant. Few of its supposed medicinal properties have been universally verified.

Mr Kim pointed at a young couple who were putting their heads through two giant fibreglass ginseng roots outside the main exposition hall. They were newly-weds. The ritual is meant to bring offspring and good luck. It has been scientifically proved that it only brings an embarrassing snapshot.

Evaluating ginseng: “The ideal shape should look like two slim ladies with shapely legs dancing together in the wind.”Evaluating ginseng: “The ideal shape should look like two slim ladies with shapely legs dancing together in the wind.”

A troupe of young dancers were skipping around on the stage as a warm-up act for some traditional ginseng field harvest songs and a Miss Ginseng beauty pageant. There were stalls offering shave-your-own ginseng master classes. Women sat cross-legged earnestly scrubbing away at mountains of ginseng roots.

There were cookery demonstrations and also in a small tent an old man was making dolls out of ginseng roots.

A ginseng connoisseur knows the different between the various types of ginseng – bangoksam (dried into a half-folded form), Goksam (circular) and taeguksam (pre-soaked in hot water). Hwagi-sam is American ginseng. Nearly $90m worth of ginseng is exported from the US every year. Bamboo-sam is from Japan and Sanchii-sam from China and Siberia.

Ginseng panax (named by the Russian botanist Carl Anton Meyer  after the Greek word for ‘cure all’) is thought to have originated in Manchuria. Rootstock was exported from America in the early 1700s. 1903 was a boom year for American ginseng. A year later, a leaf disease decimated the crop.

It is thought that ginseng was first cultivated in an organised manner in South Korea in the 16th century, having previously grown wild in the mountains. The festival, which began in 1980, was started to honour the Jinaken mountain god who, according to legend and a local PR company, gave the miraculous perennial herb to the town. And then the world. And then to Boots.

The area around Geumsan is ideal for growing the ginseng herb because of its highly acidic soil, steep sloped mountains and higher than average rainfall. The plant grows to about 60cm and produces red berries.

Most ginseng gardens are about an acre. Labour is by hand and very intensive. It takes five to seven years for ginseng to be grown from seed. The harvest of the six to seven-centimetre root is from August to November. A field which has grown one crop of ginseng cannot be re-cultivated for 15 years. The ginseng patches are always covered as the plants favours shade.

Most South Koreans drink ice-cold brown ginseng tea. Two grammes of ginseng a day taken before meals is meant to keep the doctor away.Most South Koreans drink ice-cold brown ginseng tea. Two grammes of ginseng a day taken before meals is meant to keep the doctor away.

Ginseng enthusiasts were giving out flyers everywhere in Geumsan. All made their own extravagant claims for their products. “Stabilises unstable mental state”, “Builds stamina”, “Most shocking effects of night’s drinking aren’t existed”, “Restrain phenomenon of ageing”,  “Good for weak eye and poor memory”, “Strengthens feebleness”, “Resolves phlegm”, “Eases stress”, “Reduces gas”.

Some of the claims almost sounded Confucian. “Attracts what is salubrious and repels what is pernicious”. Some were very scientific-sounding. “Maintains homestasis” and counteracts cancer-causing antibodies”. There is nothing, it seems, the South Koreans believe ginseng cannot cure.

Except perhaps ginseng addiction.

But ginseng’s main fame is as an aphrodisiac although there is no hard proof for this. “Appeases thirst of women”, read one leaflet. “Promotes happy marriage. Activates manly functions”.

Which is no good at all if you have just ricked your back.

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