Ginseng brings earthy, bitter twist to common foods

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Almost all of the ginseng crop in the United States is produced in Wisconsin, much of it exported to Asia.

I recently joined the Ginseng Board of Wisconsin for a night of cooking with ginseng, the "Ginseng Festival Feast," featuring Taiwanese chef Theresa Lin. I had never tried ginseng before, so I was a little skeptical, but I like pickled ginger, a very strong taste on its own, well enough that I was ready to taste ginseng in any form.

The Thursday night virtual cooking class began with an introduction to Lin's cooking studio, looking very polished with the cooking space and ingredients perfectly prepared. More than 30 others joined me on the Zoom call, many of them standing in their own kitchens ready to cook along – including host Julia Nunes, the 73rd Alice in Dairyland, who was broadcasting live to Facebook. You can rewatch the recording on her page.

The Ginseng Board of Wisconsin mailed participants complimentary packages of fresh and dried ginseng as well as an apron and a sample of ginseng tea, a very popular form of ginseng consumption. They also provided ingredient lists for four recipes – Fresh Ginseng Salsa, Chicken Breast Noodle Soup, Lichi Ginseng Margarita and Pineapple Ginseng Sherbet – and everyone would cook along with Chef Lin over the course of nearly two hours.

Unfortunately, I actually had to wait to make my own dishes until the weekend because my ginseng shipment got lost in the mail. But all I had to do was make a trip to my local cooperative grocery store to grab some ginseng root for myself and steam it so it could be used in the recipes. And in retrospect, doing it this way helped so I could make notes on what worked and didn't work during the webinar.

I ended up making the soup and salsa over the following weekend (I didn't have the proper equipment to make the other two dishes) and it was a fun and easy experience. While I like cooking in my free time, these dishes can be pretty easy for beginner cooks too. The only difficulty I came across was learning how to actually use the ginseng – since I bought it dried, I had to rehydrate it in order to make it usable, but I didn't realize how long rehydration took (a whole 24 hours!). Instead, I steamed it for about half an hour on the stove, which made it soft enough to cut up.

Taiwanese Chef Theresa Lin taught us how to cook with ginseng Thursday, Feb. 25 courtesy of the Ginseng Board of Wisconsin.

Overall, the experience was very fun to be a part of because I'd never watched a virtual cook-along, especially not for an ingredient as seemingly exotic as ginseng, or so I thought. Actually, Ginseng Board of Wisconsin executive director Jackie Fett said 95% of the United States' ginseng crop is produced right here in Wisconsin, and most of it is exported to Asia, where ginseng is used as a medicinal component in food and herbal remedies. It's also popular in the States to take in capsule form.

Lin said it's been helpful to eat ginseng during the COVID-19 pandemic because of its medicinal properties. While the science on ginseng is limited, the National Institutes of Health says ginseng is used as a dietary supplement to improve immune response, increase energy, slow aging and other uses. Lin also said to avoid taking the skin off the ginseng because that's where much of the nutrition lies.

"The fresh ginseng we consider very, very rare because we usually only have the dry ones, so luckily you guys were finding all the (fresh) ginseng so that we can have them, which is more nutritious," Lin said. "Actually the essential nutrition is on the skin, so I urge you to save it."

Bob Kaldunski, president of the Ginseng Board of Wisconsin who's grown ginseng for nearly 40 years, said Wisconsin has the perfect climate for ginseng crops that includes both sunny days and chilly nights; the rich soil helps too. While the ginseng industry here has consolidated somewhat in recent years, it's still largely a family farm industry, he said.

"The climate and soil conditions that we have make it what it is," Kaldsunski said. "The industry rate currently is about 170 growers that we have. And we're all considered family farms, we're all quite small by the average acreage. ... It truly is a family business."

Ginseng can be used in lots of dishes, including soups, salads, teas and even energy drinks. Fett said it's even used in skincare products. However, it might be hard to find in an ordinary grocery store here, so the Board recommends looking online for ginseng sellers if you can't find it at a local store. And beware of mislabeling and confusing it for ginger root, which is not the same, Fett said.

"Users (should) know where they're buying their ginseng from because there are a lot of mislabeled products on the market, so it's super important that you use the resources for ginseng on our website to locate Wisconsin ginseng producers so that you know you're getting Wisconsin ginseng," Fett said.

I'm unsure if I plan to continue using ginseng regularly in my cooking because it is expensive – I got three pieces for about $20 at Outpost Foods in Milwaukee – but the experience was welcome nonetheless. If you're interested in cooking with ginseng, try these recipes below.

Fresh Ginseng Salsa with tortilla chips

Fresh Ginseng Salsa

4 medium tomatoes

1 piece ginseng

½ onion (any kind)

1 clove garlic

1 green onion

1 jalapeño

1 avocado

1 lime

Salt, to taste

1 bunch cilantro (optional)

Dice the tomatoes, onion, avocado and green onion. Mince the garlic and ginseng (remove the skin if you prefer). Cut the jalapeño in half and deseed, then dice. Add everything to a large bowl. Squeeze juice from the lime and mix in. Add salt to taste. If you want to add cilantro, chop cilantro and mix in. Serve cold or room-temperature with tortilla chips.

Chicken Breast Noodle Soup with ginseng

Chicken Breast Noodle Soup

1 cup gnocchi (homemade or store-bought)

Half chicken breast

2 cups chicken stock

1 piece ginseng

2 slices ginger

2 green onions

½ tsp. salt

¼ tsp. pepper

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Boil chicken breast until done, about 10 minutes for fresh and 20 minutes for frozen. Use a meat thermometer if you prefer (cooked chicken should be 165°F). Shred the chicken and set aside. Mince the ginger and ginseng. In the same pot, add the chicken stock, ginger and ginseng and bring to a boil, then add the gnocchi and let cook until they float, about 5 minutes. Once cooked, turn the heat off and add the chicken back to the pot. Dice the green onions and add to the pot along with the salt and pepper. Serve hot.

Lichi Ginseng Margarita

Handful of ice cubes

1 tsp. ginseng powder

3 oz. tequila

2 oz. lime juice

1 oz. simple syrup

1 tsp. orange liqueur

1 tbsp. lime-salt sugar (zest of one lime, salt, sugar and pepper)

Combine the ice cubes, ginseng powder, tequila, lime juice, simple syrup and orange liqueur in a cocktail shaker. Shake until combined and chilled, about 1 minute. Before pouring into a glass, rim the glass with the lime-salt sugar by spreading the mixture onto a plate or other surface and wetting the rim of the glass with lime or water, then pressing into the sugar mixture. Pour cocktail into glass and serve cold. If you would like to make the simple syrup at home, combine equal parts sugar and water and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat once sugar is fully dissolved and let cool.

Pineapple Ginseng Sherbet

1 piece ginseng

2 slices fresh or frozen pineapple

1 ½ cups ice cubes

1 oz. simple syrup or agave syrup

Pinch of salt

Add all ingredients to a blender, then blend until smooth, about 30 seconds. Serve cold.