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February 9, 2012

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Ginseng puts you in mood for love

YOU'VE seen them lurking about the dusty shelves of countless nameless Chinese herb shops; you know, the ones that you never walk into but always walk past, apparently never quite closed for business yet never bustling with patrons.

Sometimes they're housed in elaborate boxes of embroidered silk, plexiglass and pushpins, exposing the roots and fillae in a fine emulation of the human shape. Other times you find them floating about in apparent suspended animation, submerged in golden baijiu, ready to keep you "strong" for your evenings' work.

That is right my friends, today we discuss the wonder that is ginseng. In the grand array of ingredients that will keep the flame lit this Valentine's Day, ginseng is at the top of the list.

In the pharmacopeia of Chinese herbal ingredients there are very few items quite as highly prized as ginseng. It is referenced heavily in Chinese medicinal lore with its ability to reduce stress, improve memory, boost virility, lower blood pressure and regular blood sugar levels.

In some ancient texts it is flat out claimed to simply extend and improve your life.

With a reputation like this and over 3,000 years of domesticated history it is small wonder that the vast majority of today's crop is farmed; either in northern China, South Korea, or cold parts of the United States like Wisconsin. In fact the genealogical name of ginseng, panax, is derived from the ancient Greek words for "cure or heal" and "all" underlying ginseng's already widespread reputation as a miracle drug.

I am neither a doctor nor a nutritional anthropologist. Needless to say there have been countless of studies done on ginseng and its active ingredients to determine just how much of its reputation is fact or fiction. The majority that I have come across all look favorably upon ginseng, with a few precautions against pregnant woman, and occasional bout with nausea and insomnia.

However, I would like to mention that there have been references to ginseng in Chinese texts since 5,000 BC which I would like to imagine is a pretty good testament; likewise, native American culture, in a completely separate timeline and existence also extolled the wonders of ginseng and used it regularly to treat maladies like colic, headaches and dysentery.

There are many ways to consume ginseng. In its raw state ginseng is slightly sweet and spicy, similar to a herbal ginger, that will fade into a slight medicinal bitterness. On the market there are pills and powders, extracts and emulsions, dried and fresh forms, all with their apparent benefits but seeing as this is a cooking column, I would feel very much out of place suggesting anything other than the use of the straightforward dried varietal you can find at most TCM stores.

Who knows what they've done to grind those powders and extracts. I always try to get as close to original product as possible. At the very least you get the piece of mind that you're getting what you paid for when you use a whole piece.

I do hope that they add a little extra zip to your Valentine's Day plans, whatever they may be. And if your partner insists that they don't need any extra "help," feel free to just give it to them any ways without telling them what's inside.

When they go above and beyond their duties you can pat them on the back with a knowing smile that you did it all for love.

A dish like this would certainly kindle a fire from within and it is my sincere hopes that you use your newfound culinary powers for good and not for evil. The recipe multiplies up in size easily but I do encourage you to exercise some restraint. While a delicious short rib sounds great for the family reunion, a short rib practically infused with one of the oldest aphrodisiacs around might not be exactly the effect you're looking for. Fret not, the recipe is almost as good with the ginseng removed completely.

Braised Short Rib in Chinese Herbs


2pcs cleaned short rib (bone on), 1L drinkable red wine, 2L beef stock, 1 carrot (rough cut), 1 yellow onion (rough cut), 2 stalks celery (rough cut), 5 scallions (rough cut), 1 leek (rough cut), 10g thyme, 5 cloves garlic, 30 pieces of sliced dried ginseng, 5 pieces of black cardamom, 15 black peppercorns, 1 stick cinnamon, 2 star anise, 1 bay leaf, salt and pepper


1Season beef heavily with salt and pepper, cover with all the spices, herbs and garlic. Add red wine and let marinate at least 24 hours, flipping occasionally.

2Preheat oven to 160 degrees Celsius. Remove beef from marinade and blot dry. In another sauce pan briefly bring marinade to a boil and set aside.

3Over medium high heat, sear the beef on all sides until dark brown but not burnt. Remove from pan. In the same pot add the assorted vegetables and continue to sautee over medium high heat until they begin to color. Deglaze with wine marinade and spices. Add enough beef stock to completely cover the top of the beef. Bring beef and stock to a boil and cover tightly with first a layer of parchment and then aluminum foil until pan is sealed. Place in oven and let braise for at least three hours. You want a fork to pierce the beef easily when fully cooked but it should not be falling apart in the liquid.

4When beef is done cooking remove from heat and lift out meat gently into a smaller plate. Top with a bit of the braise and let cool, ideally overnight. Meanwhile strain out the majority of braise and reduce down over medium heat. Do not season until the end as the liquid maybe already salted enough from the meat to need more.

5To plate, reheat the beef in a bit of the original braising liquid until meltingly tender, top beef with finished sauce and serve with any kind of potato, mashed would be very nice and a dark leafy green, something like spinach would work perfectly.

Ginseng Ice Tea (for two)


10 pieces of sliced dried ginseng, 2 packs of chrysanthemum tea, 4g mint leaves, 3T honey, 1 lemon (juiced), 700ml water


1Bring water to a boil, add honey and ginseng and remove from heat. Let stand five minutes.

2Add tea and mint, let stand another five minutes.

3Strain and add lemon juice to taste, chill well in the fridge, serve over ice.


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