A Root to Remember
Chef Simpson Wong takes a culinary tripe to the old country and breathes new life into the all powerful and delicious ginseng
by Kiri Tannenbaum photography Martyn Thompson
When Simpson Wong was a little boy in Malaysia, he spent much of his time observing his mother in the kitchen. Being the youngest in his family, he also couldn’t be left alone. So when his mother went to work at his father’s lumberyard, two hours from the nearest village, he tagged along. It was there Wong’s mother would prepare three meals a day for the workers without access to a market or basic electricity. Wong sourced everything from the land he and his mother cultivated. They grew an array of chiles and vegetables, which he pickled and preserved. The workers fished for the daily catch in a nearby stream and dined on eggs from the one chicken that lived on their organic farm. A locavore’s dream.
Flash forward to 2003, when Wong opened Jefferson (now Kingswood), the sleek next-door neighbor to his Greenwich Village mainstay, Café Asean. Jefferson would soon be featured in an episode on Sex and the City and, as such, would be frequented by young fashionistas and the bankers that chased them. But at the height of his career, at only 43, Wong suffered a heart attack and soon after was forced to shut down Jefferson and put away his apron. Like a good chef, however, he never stopped cooking or eating. He traveled to Asia and visited his sister in Malaysia where he remembers a dish seasoned with the aromatic and precious root herb, ginseng. His palate was reawakened.
While Asians have been using ginseng in their cooking for ages, in the U.S. it is more likely to be found in yogi’s juice diets given the healing properties. As a chef, Wong uses it where it shines: as a sauce on his perfect prawns at his new restaurant Wong. His ginseng still comes from a local source. Farmer to the food stars, Rick Bishop of Sweet Berry Mountain Farms supplies the prized root, which flourishes in the autumn months. Wong dries the $30 per ounce herb (that’s $480 per pound) for use in his cooking year-round. At his eponymous restaurant, Wong only occasionally offers the prawns sprinkled with ginseng, but you can stop by Bishop’s stand in the Union Square Market to stock up on your own stash of “fresh from the Catskill Mountains" ginseng.