Squid and square cigars

I received a phone call at 2 in the morning from Indonesia. It was Sandra on her honeymoon.

'I've seen this ginseng root in a little shop in Chinatown, it costs about sixty pounds, shall I buy it for you?'

'How big is it?'

'About 20 inches long, it's fat at the top, and has long thin roots, Brian says it looks like a squid.'

'You're absolutely sure it's ginseng?'

'Definitely, it's the centrepiece of the shop window, in a framed box sitting on red velvet in vacuum-sealed plastic. When we asked about it the shopkeeper handed it to us as if it was a treasure. No-one here can afford to buy it, it's about 2 years' salary for a local.'

'Get it!'

'And he's also got some other ginseng, Brian says they look like square cigars, they've got a red and gold label just like an expensive cigar.'

I didn't know quite what the square cigars were. When I visited Sandra and Brian on their return and the ginseng was handed over I still wasn't sure. It was only the next day when I examined the Chinese characters on the red and gold seal that I realised it was the finest red Chinese ginseng. Such a superb aroma: I drew one of the sticks under my nose like an expensive cigar and broke a piece off. I soaked it in boiling water in a black lacquered Japanese teacup and consumed it when it was soft. Unmistakably red ginseng, highly potent, the still hard chewy pieces had a tarry, slightly liquorice taste.

As for the 20 inch ginseng root, that sits proudly on my mantelpiece awaiting a month when day by day I will eat it all; at the turn of the century three Cossacks were murdered in Siberia for a much lesser root.

I have read that such a fine root must be cut with a silver knife. Tradition must be respected. The folkloric record, for instance, reports that evil curses were placed upon people who improperly collected the sacred dodder plant, an epiphyte. A knife should not be used to detach the plant from the tree; the correct method was to pull it away with the hands while chanting the spell for dispelling blame for tampering with the holy plant.

The 'golden bough' of Aeneas was thought by Sir J G Frazer to be a similar epiphytic plant, the mistletoe. Such plants have for centuries attracted a reputation for being chthonic plants, possessed of dark powers. The white narcissus, which Persephone was picking when Pluto surprised her, the fly agaric toadstool, and mandrake, mentioned in Genesis, are all chthonic plants. Mandrake, which grows in the west and is sometimes erroneously equated with ginseng, is also a human-shaped root, which was said to shriek when lifted from the ground, killing the thief (Romeo & Juliet, iv, 3). Man got around this problem by using dogs to dig it out. Mandrake root, however, is reasonably toxic, creating hallucinations, which gave rise to the witchcraft paranoia of the European Middle Ages, along with rye bread contaminated by ergot (a fungus that contains a substance similar to LSD).

Ginseng, by contrast, is a plant of Emperors and Sages. Chinese soldiers take it into battle with them, in case they are wounded. Russian cosmonauts took doses of ginseng in space to reduce stress. Yesterday, flicking through journals, I read in the International Journal of Epidemiology another paper showing ginseng as a non-specific preventative for cancer. And today, much to my surprise, I heard that a friend who collects oriental antiquities has just bought a silver ginseng knife that once belonged to the Kangxi Emperor. Ginseng is a constant adventure.


First published in THE LANCET, Vol. 352 (November 21, 1998). Cartoon by Haldane.