Ginger: The Gentle Heat

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Both of us recall that our first experience with ginger was during childhood: tasting our mothers’ homemade ginger snaps, those spicy cookies with just a hint of a bite. It was quite a few years later that either one of us experimented with the freshly peeled root, but now all forms of ginger find their way into our kitchens. We should point out immediately that technically, ginger is not a root but rather a rhizome, an underground stem that looks like a tuber–or a thick root. And ginger is one of the most fragile of all the spicy ingredients because its heat fades so quickly, especially after processing and when cooked.
It is a very early spice, maybe the oldest of all, dating to about 4,000 B.C. A clue to its extreme age is the fact that it is grown only from a division of the rhizomes, and not from seed–an indication that it has been under human control for so long that it has lost the ability to propagate from seed–one of the few spices with this trait. Also, there is no evidence that cultivated ginger appears anywhere in a wild form.

Ginger Throughout History

Cultivated ginger first originated between northern India and China perhaps 6,000 years ago. Its domestication and early history is unknown, but it was one of the first Asian spices to reach Europe. Around 500 B.C., the beneficial properties of ginger were mentioned by Confucius and a hundred years later, Persian traders brought back ginger from India.

Starting around A.D. 110, caravans from China arriving in central Asia carried large amounts of ginger and silk that were traded for Roman goods such as gold, silver, glassware, and wine. Around A.D. 400, Chinese ships carried live ginger plants growing in ceramic pots, probably because eating the rhizomes eased seasickness–a common use in folk medicine today. Ginger became increasing important in Chinese culture, and by 750 the Chinese were flavoring their beloved tea with powdered ginger. By 973, ginger and other Asian spices were available in Spain, provided by Jewish traveling merchants called Radanites. Crusaders returning to England and Europe brought ginger with them, so by 1250 it was commonly available as a medicine. In 1274, Marco Polo, traveling in Sichuan, China, noted that an enormous amount of ginger was grown and exported, bringing vast profits to the locals.

In the west, the culinary use of ginger began in medieval Europe; ginger was expensive but still in great demand. Nearly every sauce recipe contained the spice. Guillaume Tirel, the cook to Charles V of France, created a spice fusion condiment of his time called cameline sauce, that contained ginger, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, mace, and long pepper all “pounded together” and mixed with bread soaked in vinegar and salt. This was the king’s favorite sauce for dipping roasted game. Around this time, sugar was being used in England to preserve ginger, and by 1393 a pound of ginger would buy a sheep, and it was the second most commonly used spice after black pepper.

Sometime during the early part of the sixteenth century, Francisco Mendoza, son of the Viceroy of New Spain, took ginger to the West Indies and tropical America and began cultivation; by 1547, a thousand tons of ginger were exported to Spain from the West Indies. By 1585 the first shipment of Jamaican ginger reached northern Europe. Ginger was the first Asian spice to be successfully grown in the New World, but not the last.

Something that valuable was bound to attract attention, and in1561, John Hawkins, an English privateer, hijacked a Portuguese slave ship and traded 300 slaves at Hispaniola for ginger, pearls, and sugar.

Ginger became very well established in the New World. By 1740, it was cultivated heavily in the Parish of St. Ann, Jamaica, and subsequently more that a thousand acres were planted in the area around Christiana. This area is now regarded as the production center of the world’s finest ginger. Such cultivation had an impact on America: by 1776, ginger was included in the standard rations of American soldiers during the Revolutionary War, and around1796, ginger ale was first sold by New York’s Tontine Coffee House. In 1866, the first “soda pop” made in the U.S. was Vernon’s Ginger Ale, created in Detroit, Michigan by James Vernon. He sold it in his drug store for 30 years before opening a factory to mass produce it. Canada Dry Ginger Ale began production in 1890 in Toronto as McLaughlin Belfast Style Ginger Ale. In 1907, the name was changed to Canada Dry and the slogan was “The Champagne of Ginger Ales.”

By 1953, Jamaica was producing more than 4 million pounds of ginger a year, but this had dropped to about a million pounds by 1995 because of competition from other countries. However, Jamaican ginger production rebounded because of increased demand for Jamaican ginger beer, and acreage increased 27 percent between 1995 and 1998. Since those times, labor problems have caused another decline. However, ginger is more popular than ever in the U.S. and around the world.

Ginger in the Kitchen

Fresh ginger can be stored unwrapped in the produce drawer of the refrigerator, but lasts longer when placed in zip bags. Peeled ginger can also be frozen whole and stored in a zip bag.

When you need to use a piece, cut it off still frozen to avoid repetitive defrosting. Commercial grated ginger should be stored in the refrigerator after opening. Ginger in syrup or crystallized will keep in the cupboard for more than a year. Dried ginger slices can be kept indefinitely in glass jars in the cupboard, provided they are not exposed to excessive humidity. Ground ginger can be kept tightly sealed in glass jars in a spice cabinet.

Fresh ginger is commonly used in spice and curry pastes and has a tendency to neutralize fishy smells and flavors. It is also used in chutneys and pickles. A topping of freshly grated ginger perks up cooked vegetables such as carrots, yams, or greens. For a mild heat scale, use 2 teaspoons per pound of vegetables, 1 tablespoon for medium, and 3 tablespoons for hot.


Simple Crystallized Ginger

It is not necessary to buy imported crystallized ginger, especially if you don’t mind a little work in the kitchen. Here is a home preservation technique that produces a delicious treat. Make sure the ginger rhizomes are young and tender, not fibrous. Note: This recipe requires advance preparation.

1 1/2 cups peeled and sliced ginger

1 1/2 cups sugar

Combine the ginger and sugar, along with 1/2 cup water in a saucepan and bring to a simmer over a medium heat. Gently simmer the mixture, uncovered, until the ginger is tender, about 1/2 hour. Remove the ginger slices and place them on a sheet pan.

Return the saucepan to the heat and bring to a boil. Boil the syrup, uncovered, for 15 minutes, until the syrup is very thick.

Pour the syrup over the ginger slices and allow to dry, turning daily until the sugar crystallizes. Depending on the humidity, this may take several days.

Yield: About 3/4 cup

Heat Scale: Mild


Fried Ginger Prawns

Deep-fried Chinese food is not heavy as they use cornstarch, rather than flour as a coating. Cornstarch not only produces a light crust that allows the shrimp flavor to come through, it also protects the shrimp from getting overcooked. Although a simple dish, the flavors are complex. The tartness of the lemon is tempered by the spice of the ginger, and both compliment the flavor of the shrimp. This very simple and easy dish to prepare, is one that can be served as an entree, appetizer, or just one of a number of dishes on a Chinese banquet table.

3/4 cup cornstarch

12 ounces prawns or shrimp, peeled and deveined

Vegetable oil for frying, peanut preferred

3 tablespoons grated ginger

2 tablespoons chopped green onion

2 cups cooked white rice

Garnish: Lemon Slices


2 teaspoons light soy sauce

1 tablespoon Chinese black vinegar

1 tablespoon rice wine or dry sherry

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon dark sesame oil

Salt and white pepper

Combine all the ingredients for sauce in a small bowl and stir to mix.

In another bowl, combine the cornstarch with enough water for make a thin paste. Add the prawns and turn to coat.

Heat a wok or heavy skilled over medium-high, pour in the oil to a depth of a couple inches, and when hot, add the prawns and stir-fry until they are just golden, about 1 1/2 minutes. Remove and drain on paper towels. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the oil from the wok.

Add the onions and ginger to the wok and stir-fry in for 45 seconds. Add the sauce and bring to a boil. Return the prawns to the wok and turn carefully in the sauce until the sauce has been completely absorbed into the shrimp, only a minute.

Place the shrimp on a serving platter accompanied by the rice.

Yield: 4 servings

Heat Scale: Mild


Mandarin Orange Chicken Salad with Sesame
Ginger Dressing in a Crispy Noodle Bowl

This entree salad not only combines a number of flavors but different textures as well. It’s sweet, hot, slightly sour, a little bland, crisp and crunchy all in one dish. Shrimp or even grilled halibut or salmon can be substituted for the chicken or, if desired, omitted for a tasty vegetarian alternative.

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, grilled and cut in strips

1 pound Chinese wheat noodles

3 cups chopped cabbage

1 cup mixed baby greens

1 bunch chopped fresh cilantro

1 small can Mandarin orange segments, drained

1/4 cup sliced radishes

1/4 cup toasted, sliced almonds

Sesame oil

Vegetable oil for frying, peanut preferred

Sesame Ginger Dressing:

3 tablespoons vegetable oil, peanut preferred

2 to 3 teaspoons sesame oil

3 tablespoons rice vinegar

3 Thai chiles, stems removed, minced

1 tablespoon grated ginger

2 teaspoons orange zest

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon soy sauce

1/4 teaspoon dry mustard

Yield: 1/4 to 1/3 cup

Combine all the dressing ingredients in a bowl and whisk to combine. Allow the dressing to sit for 20 to 30 minutes to blend the flavors.

To make the noodle bowl, heat about 4 quarts of water in a stockpot to boiling. Add the noodles and boil for 4 to 5 minutes or until the noodles are done. Remove, drain, and rinse with cold water. Drain thoroughly and sprinkle with a little of the sesame oil and toss to coat. Divide the noodles in 4 equal parts and stir the noodles to loosen and separate.

Heat a wok until hot, add the vegetable oil to a depth of 3-inches and heat to 360 degrees F. Add one of the noodle bunches and using a round, heat proof bowl or can, press down on the noodles so that they press up along the sides of the wok to form a bowl. Fry until the noodles are browned and the bowl holds its shape. Remove and drain on paper towels. Repeat with the remaining noodles.

Combine the cabbage, baby greens, and cilantro in a large bowl and toss with the dressing to coat.

To assemble the salads, place a noodle bowl on each of 4 individual plates. Divide the cabbage mixture between the between the bowls. Garnish the plate with some of the orange segments. Arrange the chicken strips on top of the cabbage, and garnish with the radishes, remaining oranges, and almonds. Serve with additional dressing on the side.

Yield: 4 servings

Heat Scale: Mild


Spicy Ginger Garlic Green Beans

This recipe is best prepared with Asian green or long beans but any thin, fresh green bean will do. It’s a sweet, hot, and crunchy dish with lots of flavor that almost begs to be served with plain white rice. Although it’s not essential to use the vegetarian black vinegar, it does add another layer of complex flavors that you don’t get with another vinegar. These beans can be steamed a head of time and kept cool. Go ahead and prepare the rest of the meal and then finish off the stir-fry before serving or prepare the beans and cool, let stand at room temperature and serve. They are good either served hot from the wok or at room temperature.

1 pound thin green beans or Asian long beans, cut diagonally into 2 to 3-inch pieces

1 tablespoon vegetable oil, peanut preferred

1 tablespoon grated garlic

1 tablespoon chopped ginger

Garnish: toasted sesame seeds


2 tablespoon vegetarian black vinegar or substitute rice vinegar (available in Asian markets)

2 teaspoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon crushed red chile such as piquin

1/2 teaspoon black sesame oil (available in Asian markets)

1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper

Combine all the sauce ingredients in a small bowl, stir to mix and set aside.

Put the green beans in steamer in a work or heavy saucepan along with 1/2 cup water, cover and heat over high heat. Steam the beans until bright green and almost done, but still crunchy. Remove and drain off the water. If finishing off later, run the beans under cold water to stop the cooking process.

Heat the wok over high and when hot, add the vegetable oil and heat. Add the garlic and ginger and stir- fry for a minute or two until fragrant. Return the green beans to the pan and stir-fry until almost done.

Add the sauce ingredients to the pan and continue to stir-fry until the sauce has thickened and coats the beans.

Place the beans in a serving bowl or platter, garnish with sesame seeds and serve.

Yield: 4 servings

Heat Scale: Hot

Ginger Scones

Scones are a Scottish quick bread whose popularity has spread across the ocean to the U.S. They are similar to a biscuit, but richer, with a slightly cake-like texture. The name “scone” comes from the Stone of Destiny, where the ancient kings of Scotland were crowned. Scones usually contain moist additions such as currants, which are traditional, or ingredients such as ham, cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, and often in the Southwest, green chile. These scones combine two forms of ginger, ground and crystallized, and are much moister than the traditional ones.

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons milk

2 tablespoons honey

4 cups unbleached flour

1/4 cup sugar

2 tablespoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 sticks butter, softened and cut into small pieces

1/2 cup crystallized ginger, finely chopped and dredged in flour

1/2 cup raisins, dredged in flour

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Lightly oil a sheet pan.

Combine 2 tablespoons of the milk and the honey in a small saucepan over medium-low, and stir until the honey is dissolved. Remove from the heat and keep warm.

Sift all the dry ingredients into a large bowl.

Add the butter and cut it into the dry ingredients using either a pasty blender or two forks, until coarse crumbs are formed.

Add the crystallized ginger, the remaining milk and warm honey mixture to the flour and gently mix just until a soft dough is formed. Do not over mix. Turn the dough on a lightly floured surface and gently knead 5 times.

Roll out the dough to form a thick 8-inch square. Cut the square into quarters, diagonally. Cut each quarter in half to make triangles.

Place the scones 1-inch apart on the sheet pan.

Bake for 15 minutes, or until they are lightly browned. Place them on a rack to cool and serve warm or at room temperature.

Yield: 8 scones

Heat Scale: Mild


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