Ginger, zingiber officinale, is thought to be perhaps the most used plant in the history of mankind. The Sanskrit name for ginger is “vishwa bhesaj,” which means universal medicine. Best known for treating indigestion and nausea, ginger can also act as a decongestant, and can help with poor circulation, arthritis and other cold weather imbalances
The History of Ginger
For over 4000 years, ginger has been used throughout the world as a culinary spice, specifically in India, China, Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam. By the ninth century, ginger reached Rome and its use spread quickly to other areas in Europe. It was popular in England as a spice used alongside salt and pepper.
Henry VIII as well as his daughter Elizabeth I, loved ginger. It is said that at state dinners, Elizabeth would give guests a gingerbread man that resembled either the King or her. Gingerbread continues to be a favorite in English villages with each possessing its own special recipe, and unique cookie molds. Germany also took to ginger and gingerbread, but rather than using cookies, they made colorful and creative houses with the treat during the Christmas season.
Here is a sample of how other countries across the globe have used this culinary spice:
- Germany: Carp cooked with gingerbread and ginger snaps
- Japan:Ginger is pickled to make Shoga
- Korean: Kimchi, a popular fermented salad
- India and Thailand: As a key ingredient in curries
- Jamaica: Part of the island’s famous spicy jerk seasoning
- Myanmar (Burma): Uses fresh ginger to mask the odor of fish
- Ginger is also used in many drinks including ginger ale, ginger beer, and ginger tea, and it is added to liquors and coffees as well.
Half of the world’s supply of ginger comes from India’s Malabar Coast; however, most of what is found in the United States is grown in Hawaii. While Sierra Leone and Nigeria are thought to produce the most pungent ginger, many chefs believe that best for cooking comes from Jamaica.
How to buy Ginger
Ginger is planted in August or September using the previous year’s crop. It takes about nine months to reach maturity. After the plant’s flowers appear, the tops die, leaving the underground stem known as a rhizome ready to harvest.
A piece of ginger is called a “hand”. It can be purchased fresh whole, sliced, and diced, or dried and ground or crystallized. When purchasing whole, fresh ginger, look for hands that are firm and plump, light brown in color and with smooth skin. Fresh ginger, depending on where and how it was grown, can have varying amounts of gingerol, the phytonutrient responsible for its intense flavor; because of this, its taste can range from mild to intense.
Fresh ginger can last in the refrigerator up to two weeks, but can be frozen and used when needed. Followers of Ayurveda should not freeze it.
Ground ginger lacks the aroma of fresh ginger, but the spicy fragrance and characteristic flavor are intact. Both fresh and dried gingers are used in savory dishes. Sweet dishes primarily call for the dried form. Most contemporary Asian and Indian dishes use fresh ginger.
To cook with fresh whole ginger, peel the skin using a paring knife or a vegetable peeler and cut into quarter size pieces. If adding to a recipe, a small grater or pestle can assist in creating the right consistency for the dish. Once added to the food, this very strong fresh ginger flavor mellows.