Ginger: Spicing things up for 5,000 years

February, 2018

© tashka2000 / adobe stock

Ginger has a way of getting into things. Candies, cookies, teas, curries and numerous cocktails can all attest to this. So even if you’ve never bought one of these knobbly, sand-coloured “roots,” chances are you’re still familiar with its flavour and fragrance. But what is it about ginger that’s made it so popular for so many centuries? Read on to find out.

Ancient Origins

Humans have been using ginger for thousands of years. And though its origins are a little murky, it’s believed to be native to the Indian subcontinent. In fact, the word ginger comes from the spice’s name in Sanskrit, which is the language of Hinduism. Having been used as a food, medicine and spice in India and China in ancient times, ginger spread via the spice trade to the Roman Empire by the 1st century AD. From there it travelled all over Europe, and by the 11th century it was even heating up palates in drizzly England.

Growing Ginger

Ginger is both the name of a plant and that plant’s rhizome (underground stem). Often incorrectly thought of as a root (hence the term “ginger root”), it’s the rhizome that you see in the produce section of your grocery store. The plant is reed-like, with above-ground stalks that grow about a metre tall and produce yellow flowers. As the rhizome sits near the surface, its knobs will often poke through the soil line. These may be cut off for use, or the whole rhizome can be easily yanked out of the ground when the stalk starts to wither. The rhizome can then be prepared simply by washing it and leaving it to dry in the sun.

A Little Bite

Spicy, warm and sharp are all words that have been used to describe ginger’s taste. And though few people would ever chomp down on a chunk of unprepared ginger, its use and popularity as a spice and flavouring is widespread. Thanks to science, we have some idea of why ginger tastes and smells the way it does. Gingerol, the active constituent in fresh ginger, is related to compounds found in various peppers. When ginger is cooked, gingerol undergoes a process that changes it into a compound called zingerone, which imparts a somewhat sweeter flavour.

Ginger World

As noted, ginger has a wide variety of uses. It’s perhaps best known for its culinary appeal. In India, it is a common ingredient in many curries and is also used to flavour chai. Southeast Asian cooks use it in various soups, while in Japan, ginger is often ­pickled and served as a condiment. In the West, ginger is frequently found in sweet drinks and baked goods—such as ginger ale and gingerbread—as it goes so well with sugar.

Ginger has also been widely used in traditional medicine. As such, it’s probably known as a folk remedy for nausea and upset stomachs. The evidence is inconclusive, but some studies have suggested ginger may help in reducing symptoms related to motion sickness, morning sickness and nausea brought on by chemotherapy. Traditionally, sailors would chew on ginger as a way to relieve seasickness. Other research, however, has indicated that ginger is less effective for nausea than modern treatments. Either way, make sure you check with your doctor before using ginger as a medicine, as it is known to interact with a number of ­medications. t8n

 

© Jenifoto / adobe stock

Ginger Hot Chocolate

2 cups milk

1 cup water

1/4 cup cocoa powder

1/2 tsp ground ginger

1 pinch sea salt

Sweetener, to taste

In a saucepan, bring the milk and water to a simmer. Reduce heat and whisk in the cocoa powder, ginger, sea salt and sweeten to taste.

Pour, and serve.

 

Did You Know?

The practice of horse gingering involved applying raw ginger to a horse’s, um, backside. This would enliven the horse, making it appear younger or livelier. In modern times, a gingerol-rich paste is used instead, though the act is generally considered cruel.