Ginger most likely originated in SE Asia but it is now used on all continents as a culinary spice and is equally valued medicinally. It is used in a raft of remedies including: to improve circulation and relieve pressure on joints (especially useful with gout); to combat nausea (well known as an antidote to travel sickness and for easing morning sickness during pregnancy); to cure flatulence (it settles a rumbling stomach); and to ward off coughs and colds and clear nasal decongestion. It also improves cholesterol levels and is useful in treating low blood pressure. One little rhizome can do all that!
When ginger is first cut it has a powerful refreshing citrus-skin character that at its best is hot and nose-tingling, sometimes eye-wateringly hot, with a fleeting whiff of turmeric. The initial hot bite fills the chest with warmth, but it has a calming, anti-inflammatory effect and leaves the breath fresh and clean. Cooked with garlic and chilli it forms a cornerstone of flavour in curries. However, when cooked or eaten with other spices, it increases their hotness.
Ginger is often described as a root but it is in fact a rhizome (a root typically grows underground whereas a rhizome is an underground stem which puts out lateral shoots). When very young and fresh, it is a pretty pale pinky gold in colour with the texture of a crisp apple, and, like a new season’s potato, doesn’t need peeling; it is milder in flavour and can be used liberally but it will not keep as well as more mature ginger. Young ginger is easy to slice and to cut into fine julienne. Mature ginger is more fibrous and noticeably hotter in flavour and is better suited to grating.
Look for plump, firm clumps of ginger (called hands), that feel heavy for their size, avoiding any that are withered, as they will be pungent and coarsely textured.
To use, either grate ginger finely on a small ginger-grater (I use a ceramic one which catches the fibres; it’s easily cleaned under running water), or slice, shred, mince or grate coarsely on an old-fashioned box grater and squeeze out the juice.
The best way to store ginger and prevent rot is to wrap it in paper towels then to transfer it to the vegetable crisper in the fridge. It can also be kept in the freezer in a resealable plastic bag, although it will then only be good for cooking (grate while still frozen). Alternatively, immerse in a jar of sherry and use the aromatic liquid in Chinese-inspired dishes.
Ginger is an integral part of curries, usually added early on to flavour the oil, but its fresh hot bite is also welcome with meats, vegetables, lentil and bean dishes, marinades, sauces and dips. While it’s hot bite and fresh scent were used to disguise off-flavours in food in the ancient world, these days it is used to underpin dishes with its spicy and warm fragrance.
Dried and ground ginger is pungent but lacks some of the cleansing freshness of fresh ginger, and in my experience loses its oomph more quickly than other spices, so replace it often.
More recipes using ginger