By Eric Brand
These days, chicken soup has exploded far beyond its historic confines of folk medicine and Grandma’s version of natural healing. Entire genres of self-help books promote themselves as supplying chicken soup-quality wisdom for virtually any topic of modern life, and even Harvard studies have pitted this ageless household remedy against the common cold. Chicken soup has survived the ultimate test of time across most cultures, and chicken soups made with Chinese herbs are arguably the most delicious illustrations of Chinese medicine’s venerable tradition of “nourishing life” (yang sheng). Perhaps the epitome of this tradition is the simple but classic ginseng chicken soup, which provides a delicate flavor and a wonderful boost for both mind and body.
The effects of ginseng are both subtle and powerful, and its distinctive flavor blends perfectly with chicken. The two are traditionally cooked together in a ceramic double- boiler; this maintains a low temperature that maximizes the succulent nature of the chicken while preserving the flavor and efficacy of the ginseng. The combination of the water from the soup with the natural fats in the chicken increases the solubility of ginseng’s active constituents, which may substantiate the traditional belief that many supplementing medicinals are most effective when prepared with foods. Regardless of any traditional or modern explanations, the harmony achieved by these two simple ingredients puts ginseng chicken soup in a class of its own.
To make the perfect ginseng chicken soup, it is essential to start with good ingredients. Several distinct varieties of chickens are used in Chinese cooking, including black chicken, “local chicken” (a slightly smaller but white-fleshed chicken), yellow chicken, and of course, normal chicken. Traditionally, the Chinese regard black chicken as the most supplementing and nutritious form of chicken; black chicken is a slightly smaller bird with black feathers, black skin, and black bones. Its flavor is the same as that of normal chicken, but it is slightly leaner and its distinct appearance is a surprise to many Westerners. Regardless of the type of chicken used, freshness is a must, and free-roaming birds raised naturally in the countryside are preferred.
While discerning the quality of chicken comes relatively easily to most people worldwide, understanding the quality of ginseng is a far more sophisticated issue. Ginseng is on par with wine as one of the world’s most sophisticated ancient plant products, and countless people in the Asian world base their entire careers on the nuances of ginseng quality discernment. Parallel to the wine connoisseurs of Europe, ginseng masters can evaluate a given specimen to an extremely refined degree. There is a tremendous range of ginseng available in the marketplace, and those who have a passion for the roots can acquire an exquisite depth of knowledge, flavor, and health in the process of their discoveries.
While the various types of ginseng have key differences in terms of their nature and medicinal action, they share significant common ground. Overall, ginseng is regarded as an “adaptogen”; it consistently demonstrates a wide range of health benefits across a wide variety of parameters, and is well known for its enhancement of immune function, mental concentration, and exercise capacity. According to Chinese medicine, ginseng is the only medicinal that is said to “greatly supplement original qi,” an action that is reflected in its use to treat critical situations known as patterns of qi desertion. Ginseng is a quintessential qi-supplementing agent; it supplements lung qi and spleen qi, and some sources indicate that it also supplements heart qi and kidney qi. Chinese texts tend to ascribe its channel entry mainly to the heart, lung, and spleen channels, but some sources add the kidney channel, stressing its ability to treat impotence. Ginseng also engenders liquid to treat thirst, and is said to quiet the spirit and improve mental faculties.
By simply varying the type of ginseng alone, chicken soups can be customized for each season.
Spring is a time of growth and renewal, and springtime brings about an optimistic sense of freshness and adventure. It is a time for love and zest for life, as well as a time for cleaning and starting off on the right foot. For these reasons, spring is a good time to select mountain-grown white ginseng. Mountain-grown ginseng, known in Chinese as shan shen, is a particularly high-quality product that is grown without chemicals in its native habitat. Each root has a beautiful shape because the plant typically grows for much longer than field-grown ginseng, and the mountain grown roots are characterized by unique contours from the ginseng’s dynamic interaction with the mountain soil. In fact, mountain ginseng is so attractive and precious that it often sits lonely in glass display cases, yearning for that special springtime day when it can bring its distinctive signature to the perfect chicken soup.
Owing to its beauty and value, mountain ginseng often finds itself tragically locked into display cases or steeped in beautiful jars of liquor that are never opened. True wild ginseng is extremely rare in the modern world; according to the ginseng master at the Taipei branch of the world-renowned Beijing Tong Ren Tang pharmacy, over 98% of the ginseng that is sold as wild ginseng is not the genuine wild product. Depending on the age and appearance of the root, true wild ginseng can cost anywhere from several hundred Euros per root to hundreds of thousands of Euros for a single root. Needless to say, such truly valuable roots are seldom boiled with chicken; in fact, the critically endangered status of ginseng in the wild causes many users to avoid it for reasons of ecology alone (not to mention its astronomic price!). True wild ginseng is controlled by CITES laws that protect it from extinction and partially insulate it from trade, and its authenticity is typically verified through government registries with tracking numbers, accompanying digital photographs, and a variety of supporting documents.
Obviously, the secret to making mountain ginseng chicken soup in the spring lies in the quest for ethical and affordable sources of the root itself. Although any fool can buy a great bottle of wine or a great ginseng root for an exorbitant price, it takes skill to buy a great wine or a great root for a relatively low price. The best ginseng besides the true wild product is half-wild ginseng, which is grown in a container from seed and then transplanted to the wild environment (known in Chinese as yi shan shen). Half-wild ginseng is beautiful and indistinguishable from the wild product to the untrained eye. Although it has an excellent appearance, taste, and effect, it is not extremely expensive when sold by an honest vendor. Unfortunately, because most half-wild ginseng is sold as though it were truly wild, finding an honest vendor is often the hardest part.
A few fine details can guide the novice ginseng enthusiast. True wild roots and half-wild roots tend to always be sold with the “neck” and “shoulder” intact. The neck is long and loosely reflects the age of the ginseng; larger nodes known as “horse teeth” are seen in the upper neck, which tapers down to a thinner, smoother neck near the attachment of the body of the root. In counterfeit products (known as gong yi shen, which are generally artistically carved field-grown roots), the neck will not have this smooth transition, and close inspection will reveal that an older neck has been glued onto a common root.
Along with the neck, there should be a “shoulder” rootlet, which is an accessory root coming off the top of the ginseng root. The shoulder and all the rootlets should be exactly the same length as the main root; if the tap root is longer, the soil has been tampered with and the root is not truly wild.
Next, look at the horizontal lines or striations on the body of the root. The better the quality, the denser the striations, and only true wild specimens will have lines that are perfectly round and completely unbroken all the way around the root. True wild products also tend to have a concentration of dense lines only at the top of the root. Half-wild roots lack the perfect, unbroken, round striations, but again they are but a fraction of the price of the real thing. Artificially carved roots tend to have carved lines that are unnaturally deep or imperfectly shaped.
Finally, look at the rootlets, or “whiskers. ” The whiskers of half-wild or truly wild ginseng are covered in tiny nodes known as pearl spots. Field-grown roots lack the pearl spots, which are small imperfections in the rootlet that reflect impeded growth from the naturally rocky soil that mountain ginseng grows in.
Ultimately, the most important test is taste and effect- an experienced consumer can tell the real product from the depth of taste and the noticeable effect from eating even a tiny rootlet of a high-quality product.
Once you’ve found a source for ethical, naturally-grown mountain roots for the right price, make a delicate chicken soup by boiling one or two whole roots in a double-boiler with the chicken. Keep the seasoning simple by adding a few red dates and a touch of salt and pepper, and the deep flavor of the true mountain roots will make you think of spring all year long.
The heat of summer easily damages body fluids and yin, so summertime chicken soups are best made with American ginseng. American ginseng, known as xi yang shen in Chinese, is derived from the plant Panax quinquefolium L. , a close relative of the main ginseng plant, Panax ginseng C. A. Mey. American ginseng is the strongest form of ginseng for nourishing yin and body fluids; it is less potent than Asian ginseng in terms of supplementing qi, but it has a cooling nature that is perfect for the summertime.
The secret to good American ginseng depends on a number of factors. Again, wild products are the best, but they are scarce, expensive, and their collection is potentially harmful to local ecosystems. Woods-grown roots are excellent but are often prohibitively expensive, so field-grown roots are the best for chicken soup. The best cultivated American ginseng comes from Wisconsin (USA), and the regions surrounding Wisconsin in the US and Canada come in second. Canadian-grown American ginseng is typically cheaper, but the wide range of cultivation areas in Canada results in a similarly wide range of quality.
Overall, American ginseng roots are of the highest quality when they are dense and short, with the body of the root trimmed to isolate it from any smaller surrounding rootlets. While Chinese ginseng is better when larger, American ginseng is actually more valuable when the roots are very tiny and dense.
Long roots are generally considered to be inferior, although they can still be of decent quality and are often perfectly acceptable for chicken soup. Chinese-grown American ginseng also exists on the market, and is often sold as Canadian ginseng so that it commands a higher price.
While the production region overlaps with normal ginseng in China to some degree, the regions that grow the best Chinese ginseng actually produce inferior American ginseng; the highest quality Chinese- grown American ginseng is cultivated in Shandong province and in the area surrounding Beijing. Roots with a creamy white cross section are preferred over comparatively darker roots with a yellowish core.
For the ultimate summertime chicken soup, try this delicious recipe with American ginseng. Created by the lineage-trained pharmacist and master herbalist Guo Nan-Yu, this previously secret formula is but one of the many guarded mysteries of Master Guo’s San Diego-based Chinese pharmacy, Duong Xuan Duong. Our respect goes out to Master Guo for his decision to share this special flavor with the world.
Guo Nan-Yu’s Recipe for Chicken Soup:
Place the following herbs in a cloth bag and boil it with one whole chicken until the meat is falling off the bones.
xi yang shen (Panacis Quinquefolii Radix) 2 g
One large Chinese fig (feng zao)
bai he (Lilii Bulbus) 10 g
sha shen (Adenophorae seu Glehniae Radix) 10 g
da zao (Jujubae Fructus) [red variety] 37 g
lian zi (Nelumbinis Semen) 20 g
yu zhu (Polygonati Odorati Rhizoma) 10 g
shan yao (Dioscoreae Rhizoma) 10 g
huang qi (Astragali Radix) 10 g
shu di huang (Rehmanniae Radix Praeparata) 15 g
dang shen (Codonopsis Radix) 12 g
gan jiang (Zingiberis Rhizoma) 3 g
long yan rou (Longan Arillus) 6 g
gou qi zi (Lycii Fructus) 10 g
chuan xiong (Chuanxiong Rhizoma) 4 slices
qian shi (Euryales Semen) 10 g
As the temperatures outside start dropping, consider changing the chicken soup recipe to incorporate red ginseng, which is warmer in nature. Red ginseng is produced by steaming the freshly-picked roots, and red ginseng tends to have a slightly sweeter flavor and a slightly stronger effect. While white ginseng is better for boosting fluids, red ginseng is superior for supplementing qi. However, the warmer nature of red ginseng can produce heat and dryness, and dryness is a major concern during the autumn months according to Chinese medicine.
For this reason, the best ginseng to choose in autumn is Japanese- grown Panax ginseng, which is known in Chinese as dong yang shen (Ginseng Radix Japonica). Although dong yang shen is comparatively mild in its qi-supplementing effect, it is ideal for autumn soups because it supplements without causing dryness.
Dong yang shen comes from the main species of Asian ginseng, but its different geographic origin changes its properties significantly. Some consider it to be a slightly different cultivar of ginseng, and it is now grown in China and Korea as well as in its traditional locale, Japan.
Dong yang shen is not well known outside of Asia, and is often confused for normal red ginseng. Although it is steam-processed so that it is red within, the outer skin of the root often appears to be white. This reflects a slightly different processing method, and the end result is a very balanced ginseng that tends not to produce heat.
Winter is the most yin time of the year, and the cold temperatures of winter call for the use of the strongest and warmest ginsengs- Chinese and Korean red. Although both China and Korea produce sun-dried white ginseng as well, much of the Chinese harvest and nearly the entire Korean harvest is steam-processed into red ginseng. Both North and South Korea produce excellent ginseng; production in China is limited to the provinces of Jilin, Heilongjiang, and Liaoning (the Liaoning product is generally not as good as the others).
Korean ginsengs tend to be much more expensive than Chinese ginsengs, and government regulations in South Korea require the ginseng fields to lay fallow in between crops to replenish their nutrients. As a result of their difference in price, a great deal of high-quality Chinese red ginseng masquerades as Korean ginseng in the marketplace.
Extremely sophisticated counterfeit packaging is seen on “Korean” ginseng containers, and the novice ginseng fan is best off either buying the very expensive but government-stamped Korean product or else buying affordable but decent quality sliced Chinese roots.
To discern good sliced red ginseng, look for well-developed rings in the cross-section of the root. Similar to the rings of a tree, these rings (called wen lu in Chinese) only appear once the root has been growing for at least 5–6 years, which is the basic minimum to ensure high quality. The roundness of the root and the size of the pieces (round and large is best) is also involved in the grading and pricing of sliced red ginseng, but the most important feature is aroma.
Good ginseng is very aromatic and has a pleasant and deep taste. Some processing methods produce darker slices while others produce slices of a lighter red hue, but this is mostly related to regional market preferences rather than quality. For whole roots, the best are large and attractive roots that have a visible ring at the bottom of the root where the core is exposed (the wen lu). Excessively dark roots with a faint smell of molasses are to be avoided, and roots lacking in ring development should not be too expensive.
While ginseng is a fascinating and inexhaustible subject, its union with chicken in soup is ultimately very simple. Ginseng chicken soups can be made with relatively little embellishment beyond simple seasonings, yet they can offer tremendous variety in taste, effects, and seasonal twists. By pairing the dynamic and active nature of ginseng with the nourishing nature of chicken and water, ginseng chicken soup is a veritable yin-yang synthesis of arguably the most revered medicinal herb in history with arguably the most embraced household remedy worldwide. This chicken soup for the soul will survive long after all the other self-help fads come and go.
References: Ginseng is an ancient and sophisticated plant product. Just as experts in wine have generally acquired their knowledge through extensive samplings and discussions with other connoisseurs, most ginseng experts have acquired their knowledge through experience in ginseng cultivation and trade. While there are a number of books that have provided me with various elements of background knowledge, most of the material in the discussion above is derived not from quotations of primary texts, but rather from extensive discussions with ginseng experts in Taiwan, China, and the USA.
My quest to learn more about ginseng has taken me to the major Chinese wholesale markets in Anguo (in Northern China), Anhui (in Central China), and Guangzhou (in Southern China). I am in debt to particularly informative contacts such as Han De Min from Guangzhou, Andy Ellis from Taipei, Guo Nan-Yu from San Diego, and Dr. Feng Ye from Taipei. In addition, I would like to express my gratitude to the ginseng experts at the famous chain of Chinese pharmacies known as Beijing Tong Ren Tang, especially the informative staff at the Taipei branch. Among the text sources that I surveyed, the one Chinese language text deserving of particular recognition is Ye Ding Jiang, Zhong Yao Pao Zhi Xue (Chinese Medicinal Processing). Taipei: Zhuyin Chubanshe; 2001.
We are very grateful to Eric for permission to reprint this article, which was first published in the 2008 Thieme Almanac. Thanks also to Charlie Brand for the great photos of ginseng from Legendary Herbs.
Eric Brand is a practitioner, author, and lecturer in the field of Chinese medicine, and the founder and president of Legendary Herbs. As a long term resident of Taiwan, he has studied language and medicine for many years. He is a translator and editor for Paradigm Publications and in the past has worked in Beijing as a translator, consultant, and chief coordinator for China’s largest Chinese medical publisher, Ren Min Wei Sheng Chu Ban She.
Legendary Herbs specializes in quality concentrated herb extracts for the professional Chinese medical community, and high-quality tonics such as premium ginseng and cultivated cordyceps, sourced directly from Chinese growers and first-tier wholesalers.