Ginger, as far as spices go, is an embodiment of contrasts. It is an exotic bridge between the cuisines of the East and the West. Lauded for its soothing medicinal properties, it is also cursed for its propensity to cause gastric irritation. Traditional folk lore believes in its ability as a powerful aphrodisiac or, alternatively, as a talisman against evil. In order for the plant to thrive, ginger requires the duality of extreme weather. The fibrous, knobby root inspires both savoury and sweet dishes.
There are few cooking ingredients that can successfully infuse all manner of dishes, from appetizers to desserts, with such agility. The warming, piquant, flavour of ginger is just as at home in hot and sour soup as it is in ice cream. The versatility of the spice, long used in Eastern cuisine, has gained a strong foothold (tongue hold?) on the Western palate.
Ginger is native to India and China, although most of the ginger available in North America has been grown in Jamaica, which is said to be of superior quality. The creeping, perennial plant requires a tropical climate with both a hot dry season and a heavy rain season. The root part that we use in cooking is really a tuberous rhizome which can be bought in several different forms. As the root is easily transported it was one of the first spices to be carried along ancient trade routes.
Ground ginger in powder form is most commonly used in baking. It has its own unique flavour that is sweetly spicy and should not be used as a substitute for fresh ginger in recipes. The flavour dissipates quite quickly so the powder should be used within two months of purchase for full potency. Apparently, ground ginger was put out in bowls in English taverns for patrons to sprinkle over their beer, the precursor to modern ginger ale.
Pickled ginger is thinly sliced pieces of root that have been brined in a sweet and salt vinegar. It is most often served to cleanse the palate between servings of sushi.
Crystallized ginger and preserved ginger are both sweet confections that can be eaten as is or added to baked goods to impart a chewy texture and hot kick. Pieces of fresh ginger are slowly cooked in a heavy sugar syrup until all of the moisture has been replaced by sugar. They are either preserved in this syrup or removed, coated with more sugar and dried to make crystallized ginger, which keeps indefinitely in a sealed glass jar. Store preserved ginger in syrup for up to six months in the fridge.
Fresh ginger root, most often used in savoury dishes, is tan in colour and bumpy in texture. The origin of its name comes from the Sanskrit word for ginger which means "horn root", referring to its gnarled appearance. The rough skin needs to be peeled away to reveal the fibrous flesh underneath which ranges in colour from deep yellow to pale ivory. I find the easiest way to peel fresh ginger is with the side of a small spoon. When scraped with slight pressure the skin is lifted away, leaving most if not all the good stuff in tact. A vegetable peeler or a sharp paring knife will work as well but will steal some of the inner flesh.
Larger roots are usually more intense and hotter in flavour than younger, smaller roots. Most of the ginger sold fresh at the grocery store is mature, although very young fresh ginger, also called spring ginger, can be bought at Asian specialty stores. (I have seen it in Whistler when it is in season.)
Spring ginger has a mellower flavour and does not need to be peeled. It can be used like a vegetable, as opposed to a spice, in savoury dishes.
Store fresh ginger wrapped in paper towel to absorb moisture and sealed in a plastic bag in the vegetable crisper. It should keep for two to three weeks.
Fresh ginger, once peeled should be used as soon as possible as the flesh loses its potency very quickly. Much the same way that garlic can burn and become bitter, gingers flavour will also suffer with prolonged cooking or overheating.
Grating fresh ginger will get rid of a lot of the fibrous content of the root and deliver more of a punch to a dish. Chunks of the peeled root, once bruised (crushed slightly between the cutting board and the flat side of a chefs knife) can add a subtle kick to sauces and soups and can be easily removed before some poor soul pops it into their unsuspecting mouth. Eating large amounts of ginger can cause stomach irritation.
Conversely, ginger tea can help alleviate nausea, motion sickness and intestinal gas. Ginger ale has been served aboard aircraft since the dawn of passenger aviation for the simple reason that it can settle upset tummies. It has also been proven to provide safe relief to pregnant women suffering from morning sickness. Although scientific studies of ginger continue, there are many positive findings to date. The spice has been shown to kill salmonella bacteria and it is a natural preservative. Mounting evidence suggests that ginger, taken in small amounts on a daily basis, is an effective anti-inflammatory. As the spice naturally increases circulation, there is speculation that it may even help the body to boost its rate of burning calories at least it does in mice, but the mechanism is not fully understood yet. The health benefits of ginger have been understood for centuries in Eastern medicine but here, in the West, we are only just tapping into the spices potential.
To make fresh ginger tea, slice peeled ginger root, put it in a tea ball and place in a tea pot. Fill the tea pot with boiling water and let the spice infuse for 10 minutes. Sweeten with honey if desired or drink it straight. The strength of the tea will increase the more time that it sits.
If you ever come across some ginger chews they are a great candy, although a bit spicy for young children. If you can get the maddening sticky paper off them they are an excellent treat worth trying and great to put in your pocket to ward off motion sickness and, some say, heart burn. Also, chocolate covered ginger, which is preserved ginger covered in dark chocolate, is a decadent treat if you can find it. I have tried to make my own during a craving fit for it but it isnt the same as the store bought variety.
Here is a flavour firecracker that is a wonderful addition to poultry, roasted vegetables, full flavoured fish, pork and beef. It comes from The All New All Purpose Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker. The paste will keep, covered and refrigerated, for up to one week. It makes about two and a half cups. It could probably be frozen too without much loss in flavour.
Asian Ginger Spice Paste
Combine in a blender or food processor and coarsely puree, leaving the mixture a little chunky:
half cup minced peeled fresh ginger
one third cup sesame oil
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
quarter cup chopped fresh cilantro
quarter cup chopped fresh mint
quarter cup chopped fresh basil
2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons cracked white peppercorns (S.s note: use black if you havent got white)
Rub the mixture over the entire surface of the food, using enough pressure that an even layer adheres. Although rubbed on just prior to cooking will impart flavour, leaving the food to marinate for up to 24 hours will produce a more flavourful dish.