The Jewel of the Underground
If spice were to be a crown, then ginger would surely be its golden jewel.
Native to Asia, the ginger plant (Zingiber officinale) was one of the earliest commodities to be introduced to European colonies from the East Indies by the Spanish, consequently laying down the foundations of The Spice Trade.
Once the Spaniards delivered this amber spice to the West, the Americas soon naturalised crops, cultivating it enthusiastically and importing some 22,053 cwt. into Europe in 1547. It was so popular that it soon became standard ration amongst George Washington’s troops during the Revolutionary War. The West Indies now boasts some of the finest crops, harvesting a shorter, more pungent tan rhizome.
Hailed as “the universal medicine” by Ayurvedic wisdom, the yogis of ancient India were its first enthusiasts, praising the spice for the mental clarity and sweetness of breathe it gave them, which was sure to please their Gods. The name ginger is derived from a Sanskrit word for “horn root”. Soon the Chinese embraced it and their interpretations and gave rise to its healing notoriety.
A perennial crop belonging to the botanical family of underground stems called Tuberous Rhizomes; ginger shares its roots with other important spice such as turmeric and galangal (Thai ginger). No Asian dish would be complete without the inclusion of this aromatic spice.
Back in the 70’s, fresh ginger was as rare as hens teeth to find, so as a child, I only knew of the dried spice that lent its flavour to gingerbread men, crystallised ginger and the ginger nut biscuits my Father was fond of. Fortunately, the fresh variety is abundant in our shops and markets, thanks to the influx of Asian grocers and restaurants, finally making the supply proportional to the demand.
Its flexibility in the kitchen is paramount as it lends its unique flavour to an atlas of taste, particularly those of the exotic East – whether that be the Far, Middle or South. Only fresh ginger appears on the Japanese table, never dried. Hajikami “blushing ginger”, are long piquant pink shoots that usually accompany grilled dishes, while sweet pickled ginger Beni-shoga, is the garnish always served with sushi. In Burma, an after meal digestive aid called Gin Thoke comprises lemon marinated sliced ginger which turns it pink, then sauteed garlic and toasted seeds.
When buying fresh ‘baby’ ginger for cooking always look for young ‘hands’ that are pale yellow gold and have a hint of moisture. Very young ginger has an almost transparent coat with roots tipped with pink. Fresh ginger is fragrant with a light yellow, fibrous interior. It has a fresh hot taste with sharpness likened to that of chilli. Chinese cuisine celebrates ginger for these warming properties, using it to stimulate the appetite and promote digestion by kindling the digestive fire, making it the perfect ingredient for winter.
The older the ginger, the more knotted the knobs and thicker the skin, which requires very fine peeling. The most flavour is derived from the mature root stock therefore if too much peel is removed, essential oils and rich resins may be lost. With young ginger, however, the skin is so fine that is really not worth the trouble, so slice or grate with the skin intact. Young ginger root should be at least one year old before consumption.
Gingerly – with soft steps: with extreme wariness and delicate gentleness
Medicinally, ginger is a diaphoretic (promotes sweating) and is highly beneficial in treating coughs and colds by clearing phlegm or mucous build up in lungs, sinus and throat. Freshly squeezed ginger juice will help to allay nausea and vomiting symptoms associated with motion and morning sickness and the effects of food poisoning. Ginger may also be used to neutralise strong odours from seafood and less than fresh meats, and as an antidote for seafood poisoning by counteracting the toxic effects – one of its earliest medicinal tasks.
Continuing research suggests that ginger may help to lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by inhibiting platelet aggregation, a contributing factor in atherosclerosis, the accumulation of plaque within the coronary arteries that can lead to reduced blood flow to the cardiac muscle.
Therapeutically, old ‘mother’ ginger is more beneficial and may be used poultice for stiff joints and muscular aches where it can be applied topically the affected area or added to a warm bath to soothe back pain. A compress can be made by using a 10cm square piece of muslin, then placing one tablespoon of grated ginger in the centre and gather the corners of the cloth together and secure tightly with a rubber band. Steep in boiling water, allow cooling slightly, then applying to the afflicted area. Ginger root acts as a mildly stimulating circulatory aid alleviating premenstrual symptoms by promoting movement of retained water.
A Gingerly Paste for Winter
2 pieces peeled fresh ginger, about 1 inch thick
1 bunch fresh coriander, washed and dried
1 fresh red chilli, seeds removed, chopped roughly
4 cloves garlic
Juice and zest of 1 lime
1/2 teaspoons toasted cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon toasted coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup olive oil
- Place all ingredients in a food processor and combine until a smooth paste is formed. Use as a base for curries or as a marinade for any fish or meat
Ginger Root Tea
- Slice a 1 inch piece of ginger finely and steep in a teapot of boiling water for 5 minutes. Drink the tea very hot so as to enjoy the warming energy of ginger
- Keep the peelings and offcuts from ginger root and place in a jar. Top up with good quality peanut oil and store sealed tight in a cool dark place for at least 3 days. Use a base for dressings or to stir fry