Tales from the Archives: Was There a Recipe for Korean Ginseng?

By Daniel Trambaiolo

As all of us continue to watch the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, and wait with cautious optimism for a time when we can heal and recover, I’d like to take a moment to revisit another medical breakthrough that required patience of its own. In this post from our archives, Daniel Trambaiolo recounts an exchange between a Korean and Japanese doctor as they “discussed” best practices for preserving and transporting the Korean wonder drug ginseng to Japan. I hope you enjoy our return to this tale of recipes, distribution logistics, and healing, no super-chilled storage freezers required.  -Joshua Schlachet


Ginseng, one of the best known drugs of the East Asian herbal tradition, can be purchased today almost anywhere in the world, but in the early modern period its availability was much more limited. The roots of Panax ginseng could be harvested only from its natural ecological range, in a region stretching across Manchuria, Siberia, and the Korean peninsula. In countries like Japan, where doctors relied on Chinese styles of herbal therapy but did not have direct access to herbal drugs that grew only on the continent, the roots had to be imported at high cost.

The cost of Korean ginseng became a source of concern in Japan during the final years of the seventeenth century, as the need to pay for the drug contributed to a steady outflow of Japanese silver that was used to pay for foreign products. During the early eighteenth century, the Japanese shogunal government encouraged doctors and herbalists to develop a domestic substitute, either by finding a native plant with similar medicinal properties or by discovering a way to cultivate Korean ginseng plants on Japanese soil.

Panax ginseng did not grow natively in Japan, but the related species Panax japonicus appeared similar and promised to have similar medicinal properties. However, the roots of the native Japanese species had a distinctive segmented appearance that led to Japanese doctors calling it “bamboo-segment ginseng”; their flavour was also more bitter and less sweet than the imported Korean product–a concern for many doctors, who believed that flavor was closely related to therapeutic efficacy. Some drug sellers claimed to possess secret methods that could transform the native herb into an equivalent of the imported drug, but how could these claims be evaluated?

Korean doctors were one obvious source of authoritative information on ginseng, but it was difficult to discuss the matter with them because the shogunal government had enacted strict policies limiting the movement of foreigners into Japan. Among the rare exceptions were the Koreans who travelled to Japan on diplomatic missions. Starting in 1682, these missions included a “medical expert” (K. yangǔi, J. ryōi 良醫) whose functions were to provide medical care for the members of the embassy and to allow Japanese doctors the benefit of Korean medical knowledge.

"KoreanEmbassy1655KanoTounYasunobu" by I, PHGCOM. Licensed under CC 表示-継承 3.0 via ウィキメディア・コモンズ - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:KoreanEmbassy1655KanoTounYasunobu.jpg#/media/File:KoreanEmbassy1655KanoTounYasunobu.jpg
An early modern Korean embassy to Japan.

Neither the Japanese nor the Koreans could speak each others’ languages, so they communicated by writing down questions and answers in classical Chinese, a form of conversation known as “brush talks” (K. p’ildam, J. hitsudan 筆談). The records of these conversations were often preserved in manuscripts or books printed for wider dissemination, and they can offer us insights into the styles of cross-cultural communication that these embassies facilitated–as well as into the ways Korean and Japanese doctors tried to derive benefits from each other without giving away too much in return.

The following exchange on ginseng took place between the Japanese doctor Kawamura Harutsune and the Korean doctor Cho Hwalam during the Korean embassy of 1748. (The translation is based on the published version of their conversations, which was distributed by the prominent Edo bookseller Suwaraya Mohei.)

Kawamura: In our country there is a type of ginseng whose stem, leaves, flowers and berries are just as described in the Materia Medica; its roots are similar in shape to what Zhang [Zhicong] calls “bamboo-segment ginseng.” It is very bitter in flavor and unsuitable for use, so people customarily boil it with licorice root or process it with honey water. But although the bitter flavor departs and a sweet flavor emerges, it is not the original flavor.

However, my father found a processing method that is quite acceptable; it does not rely on the flavors of other drugs, but the bitter flavor departs and a sweet flavor emerges. When my father consumed [imported] ginseng, he would always see blood in his phlegm. When he consumed the ginseng that he had processed himself, he would also see blood in his phlegm. Looking at it this way, is its efficacy similar to the ginseng from your country?

Cho: While I was in Osaka, I already heard people talk about your country’s ginseng. Although when you see the stem and leaves it looks similar, after tasting its flavor and inspecting its form it is clearly not genuine. You can perform all sorts of marvelous transformations to alter its bitter flavor, but how could you use it? There is no method for processing ginseng: you should use it just as it is naturally. Don’t be confused about this!

Kawamura: Your explanation is sufficient to dispel doubts. However, among several pounds of ginseng from your country, some roots have a burnt yellow color and seem to have undergone processing. Moreover, during [the embassy of] 1711 the Korean doctor Ki Tumun transmitted a processing method to a disciple of my grandfather. However, the paper has been eaten by insects and is now difficult to read. I will briefly write it down here, but I beg you to enlighten me further.

[Thereupon, he told me the method for processing ginseng. It is marvelous, and I have submitted it to the authorities. I do not record it here, but I have recorded it elsewhere and keep it in my home.]

Unfortunately, there are no surviving records of what Cho transmitted to Kawamura, so it is impossible to know whether it was a genuine recipe used by Koreans for processing ginseng or merely one he invented on the spot to deflect Kawamura’s questioning. Kawamura may have decided to omit the recipe from the published version of the brush talks in order to profit by selling ginseng processed according to a “secret Korean recipe.” However, his opportunities for doing so would probably have been quite limited. A few years before the meeting between Cho and Kawamura took place, a different group of Japanese herbalists succeeded in cultivating Korean ginseng from seedlings smuggled into Japan from Korea. As this new source of cultivated ginseng became commercially viable, the demand for “processed” ginseng dwindled rapidly and the recipes for such processing were gradually forgotten.

Meals on Wheels: The “Kitchen Cars” and American Recipes for the Postwar Japanese Diet

By Nathan Hopson

From 1956 to 1960, the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) sponsored a fleet of food demonstration buses in Japan (“kitchen cars”) to improve national nutrition and fuel the nation’s economic recovery with more “modern” and “rational” cooking methods and, most importantly, ingredients (i.e. American agricultural surpluses: wheat, corn, soy, and to a lesser extent meat, dairy, etc.) The concept was first floated to the US by Dr. Ōiso Toshio, chief of the health ministry’s nutrition section, 1953-1963. Along with the school lunch program instituted under the US occupation, the kitchen cars became one of the most important tools for marketing American farm products in Japan. The school lunch program, centered on bread and (reconstituted skim) milk until the 1970s, taught young Japanese new tastes. The kitchen cars taught their mothers to reproduce those flavors at home.

The initial fleet of a dozen buses, operated by the Japan Nutrition Association (a semiprivate organ of the health ministry), reached over two million people in towns, villages, and apartment blocks across Japan. The nutritionists staffing the buses put their professional imprimatur on the many novel foods they demonstrated, and distributed samples, nutritional pamphlets, and the day’s recipes to their audiences of mostly housewives. The kitchen cars were wildly popular. When US funding expired, local Japanese governments built their own to meet public demand; the number exceeded 100 by the end of the 1960s. Though it is difficult (impossible?) to quantify, the kitchen cars contributed in subtle but profound ways to transforming the postwar Japanese diet.

Despite their popularity at the time, today the kitchen cars are mostly forgotten. When they are remembered, it is mostly for destroying “traditional” Japanese dietary patterns and contributing to the “Westernization” of the diet during the period of high economic growth. This backlash stems in part from the fact that American financing was hidden not just from the public, but also from all those who staffed or assisted with the kitchen cars. Still, in the short run, these buses were a win-win for the US and Japan. America’s Cold War “Food for Peace” campaign put agricultural surplus to work supporting a critical ally, and Japan received enormous amounts of free or cheap food and generous development loans.

Figure 1: Kitchen car demonstration in rural Aomori, year unknown (probably 1950s). Courtesy of the Aomori Prefectural Museum.

The photo above shows a typical scene from a day in the life of the kitchen car. The audience crowds around the back of bus, which opens up like a thrust stage for the nutritionists to perform upon. The gathered women listen intently, some taking notes. The kitchen installed in the rear of the bus is the state-of-the-art chrome and gadgetry emblematic of the new postwar “bright life” of happy consumerism. The nutritionists in their white lab coats bring the authority of science. The foods they are preparing may not seem like the stuff of American farm surplus propaganda, but as Ōiso himself observed, “Propaganda is truly effective when people don’t notice it.”[1] To wit, the noodles are most likely soba: buckwheat mixed with (American) wheat. Even subtler is the use of sautéing, undoubtedly in (American) corn or soy oil. This kind of gradualist approach, expressed in slogans such as “Flour-based food once a day,” helps explain both why nobody suspected American involvement and why the kitchen cars were so popular and effective.

Few detailed records of 1950s’ kitchen car menus remain, but those that do are consistent with accounts from the 1960s. A list of favorites from mid-decade Okayama prefecture includes milk donuts, udon stew, sautéed amaranth leaves with liver, fried meat and vegetables with ketchup, vegetable cream soup, fried soybean fritters, chicken and peanuts in tomato sauce, bok choy with peanuts and mushrooms, and cheese sponge cake. Roughly simultaneously, the prefecture’s public health center sponsored competitions for original, tasty, nutritious, economical foods (about ¥20 each) using ingredients like soy, skim milk, and flour. Winners included vegetable omelets, fried tofu-wrapped sardines, fried sardine balls, and mysterious entries such as “nutritional bread” and “nutritional fried dumplings.”

These lists lend credence to the remarks of Richard Baum, Ōiso’s initial American collaborator. In a 1978 documentary, Baum expressed immense satisfaction at the kitchen cars’ success. As he explained, “the housewives would come out and gather around and learn how to make different wheat foods. And then they would get to sample the wheat foods. And they found these very delicious and so they would say ‘Oishii desu. Mō sukoshi’ [This is delicious. A little more, please].”[2]

[1] Quoted in Takashima Teruyuki, Amerika komugi senryaku: Nihon shinkō (Ie no Hikari Kyōkai, 1979), 106.

[2] Quoted in Takashima Teruyuki, Shokutaku no kage no seijōki: kome to mugi no sengoshi (NHK, 1978).

This post is part four in an ongoing series by Hopson on the history of nutrition in modern Japan. You can read his previous post here. This entry is based on his article “Ingrained Habits: The ‘Kitchen Cars’ and the Transformation of Postwar Japanese Diet and Identity.” Food, Culture & Society, November 2020.

The Fire and the Furnace: Making Recipes Work

By Thijs Hagendijk

While working on the Ars Vitraria Experimentalis (1678), the principle book on seventeenth-century glass, I came a across a peculiar remark. The author of the book, the German alchemist and glassmaker Johann Kunckel (1630-1703) composed a commentary on a series of Italian glaze recipes, and somewhere along he dropped the following line: “reproducing this glaze requires as much Art as inventing it” (p. 193). I was struck by this remark and have been thinking about it ever since. What is it that Kunckel tried to tell us here? What does it tell us about recipes, these miraculously concise pieces of text? And how do these written instructions fit into workshop practices? After all, when reproducing a recipe becomes an investment that equals its invention from scratch – why bother with books at all?

That people bothered is in fact beyond dispute. Recipe research from the past years has come up with ample reasons why people engaged with practical texts. People were working on their reputation, tried to organize experiential knowledge, or were concerned about the epistemic status of their crafts. And indeed, all these elements instantly return in Kunckel’s Ars Vitraria Experimentalis. Kunckel is particularly keen on stressing that everything in his book has been vetted through experience. His book reads as an attempt to apply for a good position at the Brandenburg court, and he openly runs down his main competitor, Friedrich Geißler, who worked on a similar book project. “Lieber Herr Geißler, I am sorry that you are so utterly unfortunate in your judgments and comments” (p. 188). In the end, however, we should not forget that the Ars Vitraria Experimentalis was born out of practice. It finds its basis in the workshop, amidst the radiant heat of furnaces, brightly glowing glass, skilled labor and the stinging smell of smoke.

Back to the glaze recipes. While the Italian glassmaker Antonio Neri (1576-1614) originally conceived the glass recipes some seventy years earlier, Kunckel now presented a German translation of these recipes, lavishly annotated with his comments. In an attempt to better understand how this concoction of recipes and commentaries would fit into actual workshop practices, I teamed up with Márcia Vilargiues (Universidade NOVA de Lisboa) and Sven Dupré (Utrecht University) to rework a couple of recipes. We gathered and prepared the ingredients and spent days around furnaces trying to reproduce the recipes.

Figure 1. One of the wood-fired furnaces we used to reproduce the glaze recipes. Note that the fire is stoked from the sides. Location: Telheiro da Encosta do Castelo, Montemor-o-Novo, Portugal.

We dragged wood, stoked furnaces and patiently waited for the heat to come. We tried to control the smoke and played games guessing temperatures from different shades of bright orange. Showers at the end of the day invariably turned my white bathtub into a deep brown. During these days, our main occupation was fire. Ingredients for the glaze, their quantities and the order in which they had to be combined became mere side issues.

Figure 2. The furnace opening was closed with bricks to keep in the heat. Bricks were only temporarily removed to move samples.

It was in this smoky atmosphere that we began to see a fundamental characteristic of Kunckel’s commentary. The focus of commentaries, annotations and marginalia in practical texts had traditionally been the testing, correcting and improving of recipes, but Kunckel took a slightly different approach. He started to dress up Neri’s recipes in his commentary and added new and previously unarticulated layers to the original recipes. What layers? Well, think for instance about the role of fire. While Neri straightforwardly communicated ingredients, ratios and the different steps in his glaze recipes, nothing prepared us for the important task that fire management turned out to be, which went far beyond sending some wood up in flames. Kunckel, on the contrary, emphasizes this very issue in his commentary, and repeatedly argues that “the Fire is the principle thing to observe” (p. 194).

Figure 3. To work efficiently, we reproduced several recipes at once.

Indeed, while working with different furnaces, we learned that furnaces are more than simple and inert providers of heat. Instead, wood-fired furnaces become a tool by which the quality of the glass is shaped in addition to the ingredients and the quantities prescribed by the recipe. Temperature, atmosphere and position in the furnace are all partly responsible for the end result. In the end, reworking the same recipe in three different furnaces left us with three sets of glazes in different qualities. See how Kunckel cleverly shifted the perspective in Neri’s recipes? Kunckel made his readers aware of the circumstances they had to navigate when putting a recipe into practice, something for which Neri left them unprepared.

Figure 4. Two samples of the red roischiero glaze.

Making processes can be understood as processes of growth, the anthropologist Tim Ingold tells us. And this stance on making has significant consequences for how we understand the position of texts in these processes. Makers stand in an ecological relation with their environment, their materials, tools, and the forces they work with. To make a glaze means that the molten glass, the furnace, the smoke, etc. act in correspondence with an observant and anticipating glassmaker. Crucially important here is that ideas, designs or written instructions cannot simply be imposed onto reality. Recipes need to become part of it instead. To make something means to adapt and respond to the local and unique joining and intertwining of forces, materials and elements – and written instructions form just one strand in this creative process. Seen in this light, Kunckel’s remark was not so much a pessimistic note on the possibly superfluous nature of glaze recipes, but rather a reminder that reading and reproducing a recipe is an all-encompassing effort to make the recipe work in the unique constellation of the individual workshop. Reproducing a recipe is reinventing the wheel.

Thijs Hagendijk is a lecturer at Utrecht University. Earlier this year, he defended his dissertation on reading and writing practices in the early modern arts, with a specific focus on text usage in historical glassmaking, painting and metalworking. He works on the intersection of technical art history and the history of chemistry, and is interested in performative methods, such as reworking, re-enacting and reproducing historical techniques, materials and processes.

*You can read more about this project in Thijs’ recent article in Ambix.

Canine Cures or Puppy Love

By Mark Bruck

Cute, cuddly puppies.

Throughout much of early modern Europe, oils and fats derived from animals were highly valued commodities, particularly as elements to everyday medicines and remedies. Puppy oil, in particular, was considered better than most other animal fats and remained in use until the middle of the 20th century.  In fact, in my pharmacy, I have a jar of puppy oil (now completely rancid fat) that dates from the beginning of the last century. Nevertheless, the puppy oil and dog fat were highly cherished for their medical properties in premodern European folk medicine.   

Known by various terms, including oleum catellorum, axungia canis and pinguedo canis, the fat of animals were used to heal a variety of ailments and afflictions in early modern Europe. For instance, frog and human fat comprised the basis of the healing oil known as oleum florum Slotani. Similarly, the oil called emplastrum diabotanum was composed of fifty-five ingredients, including animal oils, pitch and wax, camphor, and minerals. An anonymous eighteenth century commentator in the Journal der Pharmacie is said to have described the concoction as the most miserable mixture.  Nevertheless, early modern formal physicians and folk healers alike regularly used the fats and oils of animals as medical remedies.  The remedy known as unguentum nervinum Schmidii was composed of a variety of animal fats, including those from canines, equines and humans, was used to treat localized nerve and joint pains. Puppy oil and the fat of canines figured prominently as topical remedies for muscle and joint pains, such as podagra (the gout). Taken internally, canine fat figured frequently in both folk and formal treatments for lung afflictions such as tuberculosis.

In sixteenth century France, the barber surgeon Ambroise Paré (1510-1590) embraced the use of dog fat as a remedy for dressings and wounds, particularly those caused by arquebuses. Claiming a secret source, Paré advised that the rendering of fat be produced by processing the animals with oleum liliorum (oil of lilies), earthworms, turpentine of Venice, and French brandy. He advised that live dogs were to be boiled in the oil  until the flesh loosened from the bones and then submerged in earthworms. After rendering, the remaining animal fat was to be mixed strained with white wine before being mixed with turpentine and brandy. Similarly, in seventeenth century France, the chemist Nicholas Lémery (1645-1715) noted the usefulness of the huile de petit chiens (oil of puppies) as a topical treatment for ailments of the nervous system, such as sciatica and paralysis, and in dissolving catarrhs and congestion (Figure 1).

Figure 1 – Nicholas Lemery, Pharmacopée universelle (1697).

As noted in my previous posting (see “Canine Cures”),  the work of the eighteenth century healer Sébastien-François de Blanchart contains a wide variety of remedies that incorporate the use of materials derived from animals, including dogs.  His manuscript book of remedies, known as “Vieux recueil de remèdes,” contains instructions on the preparation of the puppy oil, oleum catellorum.  To treat foulures (muscle sprains) and sang caillé (blood coagulation), the healer recommends the oil derived from nine-days-old puppies boiled in olive oil (Figure 3). For a more effective result, and likely taste, he advises to mix in Burgundy wine. Patients should be kept warm and sweating before taking spoons full of the concoction each morning and evening.

Figure 3 – Sébastien-François de Blanchart, Vieux recueil de remèdes.

The use of animals in popular remedies for everyday ailments figured as prominent, though largely overlooked, aspects of the history of medicine. To modern eyes, the methods of preparation are likely to offend. Nevertheless, for centuries, the human and animal connection was one that touched on everything from friendship and love to health and healing.  For more on the use of dogs in remedies, please see: Lisa Smith’s “The Puppy Water and Other Early Modern Canine Recipes” from October 23, 2018. 


I am most grateful to Mme Zeien curator and librarian at the Archives nationales for making the digitised document available; it was originally classified as item 423 of the 15th department of the historic section of the Institut grand-ducal in Luxembourg.