What is Ginger?
Ginger is native to India and China. It takes its name from the Sanskrit word stringa-vera, which means “with a body like a horn”, as in antlers.
It has been important in Chinese medicine for many centuries, and is mentioned in the writings of Confucius. It is also named in the Koran, the sacred book of the Moslems, indicating it was known in Arab countries as far back as 650 A.D. It was one of the earliest spice known in Western Europe, used since the ninth century.
It became so popular in Europe that it was included in every table setting, like salt and pepper. A common article of medieval and Renaissance trade, it was one of the spices used against the plague.
In English pubs and taverns in the nineteenth century, barkeepers put out small containers of ground ginger, for people to sprinkle into their beer — the origin of ginger ale. In order to ’gee up’ a lazy horse, it is the time honoured practice of Sussex farmers to apply a pinch of ginger to the animal’s backside..
Although often called “ginger root” it is actually a rhizome. It is available in various forms, the most common of which are as follows:
Whole raw roots are generally referred to as fresh ginger. A piece of the rhizome, called a ‘hand’. It has a pale yellow interior and a skin varying in colour from brown to off-white. Jamaican ginger, which is pale buff, is regarded as the best variety. African and Indian ginger is darker skinned and generally inferior, with the exception of Kenya ginger. Whole fresh roots provide the freshest taste. The roots are collected and shipped when they are still immature, the outer skin is a light green colour. These can sometimes be found in Oriental markets.
Dried roots are sold either ‘black’ with the root skin left on, or ‘white’ with the skin peeled off. The dried root is available whole or sliced.
Powdered ginger is the buff-coloured ground spice made from dried root.
Preserved or ‘stem’ ginger is made from fresh young roots, peeled and sliced, then cooked in a heavy sugar syrup. The ginger pieces and syrup are canned together. They are soft and pulpy, but extremely hot and spicy.
Crystallized ginger is also cooked in sugar syrup, then air dried and rolled in sugar.
Pickled ginger has the root sliced paper-thin and pickled in a vinegar solution. This pickle is known in Japan as gari , which often accompanies sushi, and is served to refresh the palate between courses.
Bouquet: warm, sweet and pungent.
Flavour: Fiery and pungent
Heat Scale: 7
Ginger is actually fairly unique as spices go. It is a root that has a bite to it, so for sliced/chopped/minced, the closest may actually be garlic. It’s not the same, but it has a similar “feel” to it. For ground ginger, the closest is probably cinnamon.
Cooking with Ginger
Fresh ginger is essential to Asian and oriental cookery. It is used in pickles, chutneys and curry pastes and the ground dried root is a constituent of many curry powders.
Tender young ginger can be sliced and eaten as a salad. Sometimes the roots will produce green sprouts which can be finely chopped and added to a green salad.
In the West, dried ginger is mainly used in cakes and biscuits, especially ginger snaps and gingerbread. Ginger is also used in puddings, jams, preserves and in some drinks like ginger beer, ginger wine and tea.
Pickled ginger is a delicious accompaniment to satays and a colourful garnish to many Chinese dishes.
Preserved ginger is eaten as a confection, chopped up for cakes and puddings, and is sometimes used as an ice cream ingredient.
Preparation and Storage
In Asian cooking ginger is almost always used fresh, either minced, crushed or sliced. Fresh ginger can be kept for several weeks in the salad drawer of the refrigerator. Dried ginger should be ‘bruised’ by beating it to open the fibers, then infused in the cooking or making ginger beer and removed when the flavour is sufficient. Store dried and powdered ginger in airtight containers.
Health Benefits of Ginger
Ginger has long been ascribed aphrodisiac powers, taken either internally or externally. It is mentioned in the Karma Sutra, and in the Melanesian Islands of the South Pacific it is employed ‘to gain the affection of a woman’. Conversely, in the Philippines it is chewed to expel evil spirits.
Ginger is a known diaphoretic, meaning it causes one to sweat. It was recorded that Henry VIII instructed the mayor of London to use ginger’s diaphoretic qualities as a plague medicine. Ginger is most commonly known for its effectiveness as a digestive aid. By increasing the production of digestive fluids and saliva, it helps relieve indigestion, gas pains, diarrhea and stomach cramping.
The primary known constituents include gingerols, zingibain, bisabolenel, oleoresins, starch, essential oil (zingiberene, zingiberole, camphene, cineol, borneol), mucilage, and protein. It is also used to treat nausea related to both motion sickness and morning sickness. It has been found to be even more effective than Dramamine® in curbing motion sickness, without causing drowsiness.
Ginger’s anti-inflammatory properties help relieve pain and reduce inflammation associated with arthritis, rheumatism and muscle spasms. Ginger’s therapeutic properties effectively stimulate circulation of the blood, removing toxins from the body, cleansing the bowels and kidneys, and nourishing the skin. Other uses for ginger include the treatment of asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory problems by loosening and expelling phlegm from the lungs. It may also be used to help break fevers by warming the body and increasing perspiration.
Plant Description and Cultivation
A perennial creeping plant, with thick tuberous rhizome, producing a an erect stem 30 – 100 cm (1-3 ft) tall. The lance-shaped leaves are bright green, 15 – 20 cm (6-8 in) long, with a prominent longitudinal rib, enclosing conical clusters of small yellow-green flowers marked with purple speckles. It is propagated from rhizome cuttings, planted on rich, well drained loam. It requires a tropical climate with both a heavy rain season and a hot dry season. Plants shoot in ten days and are harvested after nine to ten months. For detailed instructions on growing it in pots see Growing your own ginger.
East Indian Pepper, Jamaica Ginger, Jamaica Pepper
German: Ingwer Italian: zenzero
Spanish: jengibre Burmese: cheung, chiang, jeung
Indian: adruk (green), ard(r)ak(h) (green), sont(h) (dried)
Japanese: mioga, myoga, shoga
Thai: k(h)ing (green)
Zingiber officinale syn: Amomum zingiber
Image by Håkan Stigson from Pixabay