What is Ginger?

FR: Gingembre

GER: Ingwer

IT: Zenzero

SP: Jengibre

BOT: Zingiber officinale

FAM: Zingiberaceae

ILL: Plate 18, No. 6

Ginger is one of the best known of all spices. The plant has long leaves and fat creeping rhizomes and at first sight vaguely resembles an iris, but a second glance shows that it belongs to quite a different family. It grows to about three feet high and the flowers are mainly yellow with a purple lip, spotted and decorative. The ‘root’ – which is the spice – is known as a ‘hand’ and does look rather like a swollen hand with flat deformed fingers.

Though originally a denizen of the moist tropical jungles in South East Asia, ginger is commonly grown in gardens where there is some shade and a tropical climate. It has been used in Asia, from India to China, since the dim ages, and dried ginger had reached the Middle East and southern Europe even before Roman times. Indeed, it was one of the first spices to reach Europe from Asia. It was then thought to be an Arabian product. Because the fresh rhizomes keep alive for a considerable time, the Spaniards had no difficulty in transplanting them in their sailing ships to the West Indies. Ginger was quick to establish itself and, as early as 1547, it was being shipped to Spain from Jamaica.

Today it is grown commercially all over the tropics from southern China and Japan to the Caribbean, Queensland, West Africa, India, Indonesia and even Florida.

Ginger was important in Europe during the Middle Ages, not only as a flavouring but also as a medicine. It was used against plague during the Black Death, and was perhaps of some help since it certainly promotes sweating (although the only person of my acquaintance who had bubonic plague and recovered, before the days of antibiotics, claimed that he owed his life to Scotch whisky). When your guests mop their brows after eating one of your special hot curries, it is usually because there is plenty of ginger in it.

What is Ginger? Photo Gallery

Fresh ginger. The fresh rhizome is commonly sold in the markets of countries where ginger grows. Nowadays, due to the influx of immigrants from India and the West Indies, one can also buy it in Britain. The hands should be plump, not shrivelled, the flesh firm and only slightly fibrous. The taste is milder and subtly different from that of dried ginger – it is difficult to describe except perhaps to say that it is less ‘spicy’. Fresh ginger, peeled and ground to a pulp, is used in many types of curries. In tropical countries it is preferred to the dried spice for most purposes. It may be pickled in slightly salted vinegar. In Delhi there is a shop that sells a twenty-year-old pickle called gillori ginger. It consists of large wafer-thin slices of fresh ginger rolled into little triangular parcels around a stuffing of spices and pinned with a clove. It is immensely pungent and aromatic and, like fernet branca, will ostensibly cure any known ailment.

Fresh ginger, after scraping, may be preserved in strong spirit or sherry. It is also canned, crystallized in sugar or preserved in syrup. The finest preserved ginger is known as ‘stem’ ginger and

Contains very little fibre, being made from the youngest rhizome shoots. Ginger preserved in sugar is, of course, originally Chinese and is eaten as a sweetmeat, but it or the syrup is also used to flavour cakes and creams.

Dried ginger. The rhizomes may simply have been washed and dried with the skin on – in which case the product is usually dark, scaly and known as green or black ginger – or have been parboiled, skinned and bleached white. Often this second type has a fine powdering of lime preservative on the outside. It is reputed to be best. The classic way to use dried ginger is ‘bruised’ – this means hitting it with a rolling-pin or hammer to open the fibres and allow the hot aromatic flavour to escape.

Powder ginger. Ground ginger suffers from all the defects of ground spices. Poor quality ginger may have been used; it may have been adulterated; and ginger contains not only a pungent non-volatile resin but also a volatile essential oil which is responsible for that special ginger flavour but is easily lost in the air. The dedicated cook will use whole dried ginger: bruise it well to break it and then pound or grind it in an electric coffee mill kept specially for spices. The fibrous matter can easily be sieved out, and the powder used immediately will contain all the fresh aromatic ginger aroma.

In European cooking, ginger is mainly used in sweet preparations. Almost every country has its ginger-spiced breads, biscuits and cakes. Parkin; Ashbourne biscuits; Flemish, Dutch, German and Swiss gingerbreads; ginger toast and ginger snaps – the blogs abound also with ginger-flavoured puddings, creams and sweet sauces, not to mention ginger beer, ginger wine and cordials, ‘dry ginger’ and punches. As a table condiment it is used to sprinkle on fruits, particularly melons and peaches.

Ginger is one of the common spices for pickles, bottled sauces and chutneys, but it is unusual in Europe and North America to find it used in meat and fish dishes. Items such as ‘American ginger snap sauce’ to go with meat or fish and ham cooked in ginger beer are sufficiently unusual to cause remark. In Asiatic cooking on the other hand, ginger is very much used with meat, fish and shellfish. Some blogs say that ginger should not be used with fish, but if the Chinese are any judge, this advice is incorrect. Indeed, ginger seems to have the power of neutralizing the more unpleasant fishy smells and, with the aid of ginger, a little sherry and grated turnip, one can make an excellent soup from a cod’s head that would otherwise be presented to the cat. In the whole of the Far East, particularly in Korea, China and Japan, one will find many recipes for fish and meat that contain a little ginger, essential in their flavouring formula.

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