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.
It wasn’t until I was working part-time in a Chinese restaurant while still at school that I discovered ginger was more than a sandy coloured powder – the smell of ginger, garlic and chilli hitting a hot oiled wok took my breath away, and I just had to know what the smell was.
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 a rhizome, a knobbly conglomeration of lumps, bumps and sprouty bits. (A root typically grows underground whereas a rhizome is an underground stem which puts out lateral shoots). The fresh ginger we buy is covered in a thin brown skin and is referred to as a ‘hand’ of ginger. Young ginger, available in early summer, 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. It pays to remember that when it comes to ginger, the older it is, the stronger it is.
Look for plump, firm hands of ginger 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 or slice, shred or mince, or grate coarsely on an old-fashioned box grater and squeeze out the juice. One of my favourite kitchen tools is a small ceramic ginger grater.https://sharedkitchen.co.nz/2015/08/porcelain-ginger-grater/ After grating ginger to a fine fibre-free paste, you clean the grater by holding it under running water to wash the fibres off.
Ginger has a colourful past, originating in south east Asia and traveling to China over 3000 years ago, then on to ancient Greece and Rome and finally to England. It probably originated in India; Zingiber officinale, the botanical name for ginger, has its origin in the Sanskrit word singabera. India still produces a good part of the world’s supply of ginger, although production in Australia is catching up. Jamaican ginger is known to be the finest.
Throughout its history it has been valued medicinally and used as a type of ‘cure-all’ to improve circulation and relieve pressure on joints (especially useful with gout) and to ward off coughs and colds and clear nasal decongestion. It also improves cholesterol levels and is useful in treating low blood pressure. Ginger ale, gingernut biscuits and crystallized ginger are a great help with getting through morning sickness as ginger eases a queasy tummy, and it’s a good antidote to travel sickness.
Ginger is often included in dals because it aids digestion (and helps avoid flatulence). It also warms the body so coriander and garlic, which have cooling properties, are added to curries to bring a balance.
Some say it’s an aphrodisiac, but I can’t claim this through any personal experience!
Ground ginger is a different baby altogether and although it’s pungent, it lacks some of the cleansing freshness of fresh ginger and cannot be substituted for fresh ginger. In my experience it loses its oomph more quickly than other spices, becoming dull and musty, so replace it often.
Ground ginger can be used in sweet and savoury foods. Just a tad will lift a roast chicken – blend it in with some butter and garlic and brush it over – and a sprinkle will heighten the flavour of vegetables stews such as ratatouille. Ground ginger is also good in rice or meat stuffings used in baked vegetables, giving the rich stuffings a fresh spicy note. And for a hot snack to go on toasted English muffins or similar, add a few good pinches of ground ginger to chopped sizzling bacon in a pan, or diced red pepper (bell or capsicum) and onion if you don’t eat bacon, add crushed garlic and a can of creamed corn, get everything nice and hot and finish off with chopped coriander (cilantro).
Ground ginger is used in biscuits, cakes and steamed puddings, often along with other sweet spices such as allspice, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and mixed spice. A few pinches added to the topping of a fruit crumble gives the dessert a lift. But perhaps it is most renowned for the sweet loaf or biscuits that carry its name – gingerbread.
Gingerbread has been made for centuries. It has always contained spice and originally was sweetened with honey. Treacle was used from the mid 17th century and the mixture was made lighter by replacing breadcrumbs with flour and adding eggs and butter, and later raising agents. It is made using the warming method (the fats and sugars are warmed to combine, unlike in the creaming method where fat and sugar are whipped together, usually with eggs), one of the easier cake-making methods. It’s perfect for cooks who can’t stand flour under the fingernails, or who fear curdling creamed mixtures. Gingerbread is best made in advance. It’s quite good the day after baking, but it’s even better the third day, and at its sticky best on day four and day five – a great cake then, to have on hand during the week.
Gingerbread can also describe a crisp biscuit mixture – the stuff you use to make gingerbread men.
Parkin is a variation from the north of England made with oatmeal. It’s a substantial gingerbread cake with a fairly dense texture. It’s not quite as sticky as gingerbread, and doesn’t keep quite as many days, but the oats give it an agreeable nutty texture; keep it airtight and don’t let it dry out. Serve slathered with butter and with red Leicester and vintage cheddar on the side for elevenses accompanied by pots of tea or snifters of sherry, or later in the day with a glass of shiraz.
Ground ginger is used in many English recipes including brandy snaps, ginger biscuits and gingernuts, and many European countries have their specialities, too: Lebkuchen (German soft honey and gingerbread cake), pfeffernusse (Dutch/German spice cookies), and pepparkakor (Swedish ginger and spice cookies) to name a few.
If you’re a keen ice-cream maker, try these flavours: Ginger, figs and walnut, with or without honey; Ginger, lemon and strawberry; Ginger, honey and crushed toasted almonds; Ginger, banana and rum.
Glace ginger is made by preserving pieces of fresh ginger in sugar syrup. It’s expensive, but has an exquisite taste of sweet, hot spice. It is used in desserts and cakes. Don’t waste the syrup – use it as the base for a fruit salad, diluting it with lemon juice, or drizzle over fresh fruit and ricotta (there are loads of other uses, too).
Crystallised ginger is made from fresh ginger which has been preserved in syrup then coated in sugar. While it’s a delicious treat as it is, it can also be used in desserts and baking. I recently added it to my recipe for gingerbread loaf, several lumps thinly sliced, and it was fantastic, adding a hot bite and interesting texture.
Pickled ginger is something else – capturing all the spice and nose-tingling freshness of fresh ginger, with a hot bite like a mild wasabi. Wafer-thin slices of pickled pink ginger are used in sushi and sashimi, rice paper wraps and are at home in appetizers and salads and with seafood. Like most ginger products, it’s addictive. Pickled red ginger is artificially coloured and usually sweeter than pickled pink ginger.