The Ginger Chronicles
“We hope you didn’t forget it!” they said.
“I did not!” she replied.
The place was a beautiful beach house on the New Jersey shoreline and the bunch of Indian-American house guests was whipping up some morning tea. Their American hostess had thoughtfully provided teabags, milk, muffins, cereal, bread and eggs. Only one essential ingredient was missing – but no fear, the diehard desis had brought that along in a Ziploc bag – freshly chopped ginger for their morning cuppa!
It’s amazing how ‘Indian’ a cup of tea tastes once you brew it with milk, sugar and plenty of finely sliced ginger. For many desis, it’s been a must-have since their growing up years in India and makes the beverage totally satisfying, with an incomparable punch, a ‘sock it to’ feeling.
Ginger Root: Beautiful on the Inside
The ginger root is a knobby ugly looking thing but it’s truly beautiful on the inside, a natural, almost spiritual, toner for the body. Ask any desi and they will have tales of how their mothers gave them a spoonful of ginger juice as a sure-fire cure for everything from sore throats and colds to motion sickness. Ginger was almost automatically added to every dish for improving digestion and taste.
Little wonder then that a well-known proverb in Hindi is ‘Bandar kya jaane adrak ka swad?’ – What does a monkey know about the taste of ginger? – essentially implying that ignorant people can’t be expected to appreciate quality, sort of the equivalent of casting pearls before swine. Today almost everyone – excepting the said monkey – does know the value of ginger, both as a taste agent and a health aid. Ginger is vital to most Asian cuisines and pops up in many Western cuisines too.
Indians call it adrak in its green form and sonth in its dried form; the Spanish call it jengibre, the Italians zenzero, the French gingembre, the Indonesians aliah and the Thai call it khing – but all agree that it’s importance in their their cuisines and health.
The History of Ginger
Ginger has certainly been around for centuries and everyone from the ancient Greeks to Confucius to the Emperor Akbar is supposed to have been a fan, not to mention the sage Vatsyayana – author of India’s famed sex manual, Kama Sutra, who recommended ginger as an aphrodisiac for lovers.
This magical spice is derived from the root and rhizome of the perennial plant Zingiber officinale. Once peeled, the ginger root has a golden color. It is used both fresh and dried, and is grown in many parts of the world but first originated in China, and then spread to India, other Southeast Asian countries, Africa and the Caribbean, and in the US it is grown in Hawaii. China is tops in ginger production, followed by India, Nepal and Indonesia. Some recipes call for the fresh, tender ginger while others use the dry root, which is brown on the outside but a lovely yellow color on the inside. Ginger is also available in dry, powdered form, as an extract and also in preserved, crystallized and candied forms. You can also get ginger tablets and capsules but there’s nothing quite like fresh ginger.
According to Naveen Patnaik, author of ‘The Garden of Life: An Introduction to the Healing Plants of India’, a city with the Sanskrit name for ginger is mentioned in the Ramayana, indicating that in 200 BC this city was already the capital of the ginger trade.
He cites the Ayurveda in calling dried ginger the ‘Great Medicament’ against colds, coughs, rhinitis, bronchitis and indigestion. “ Crushed ginger is rubbed on the forehead for the relief of headaches, while ginger juice is India’s mustard plaster, applied on children’s chests when they are suffering from colds and bronchitis,” he writes. He also points out that fresh ginger is chewed for sore throats and lost voices, and ginger candies are used as throat lozenges, and in motion sickness.
Ginger’s health Benefits
In western countries too the properties of ginger are being recognized. According to the Mayo Clinic, the rhizomes and stems of ginger have assumed significant roles in Chinese, Japanese and Indian medicine since the 1500s. The oleoresin of ginger is often contained in digestive, antiflatulent, laxative, and antacid compounds.
Many first generation Indian immigrants to America spent their growing up years in small towns and cities in India and ginger was very much a part of the medicine cabinet and the pantry. The knobbly brown ginger roots were ubiquitous in every market place, lying in small mounds on sheets in front of the vegetable seller in the bazaar, and after being judiciously inspected like jewels, they were taken home in shopping bags by cooks and memsahibs to be part of the daily meal.
Ginger would find its way into the early morning tea, especially soothing and warming on cold, brisk mornings in cities like Delhi. It would be the taken-for-granted ingredient in curries and dry vegetables and pullaos, and was the important marinade and tenderizer in meat dishes. And when a child had a cold or an upset stomach, ginger turned into a health aid.
Jehangir Mehta, the chef and owner of the hip East village café, Graffiti, has many childhood memories of ginger, not all pleasant. “Most of our food has ginger-garlic in it but when I was growing up, unfortunately I had whooping cough and asthma, and people used to always tell my parents to give me lots of ginger. My poor parents would give me even more ginger than a regular child would get. After about a year, when my cough went on getting worse and worse, I went to an allergist and we found I had an allergy to ginger!”
Fortunately the allergy completely disappeared as Mehta grew up and today he is a fan, using it in many of his dishes. At Graffiti, he does a very traditional pork dish in the manner of lamb dishes in his Zoroastrian community, braised with apricots and ginger; he also likes to pair scallops with pickled ginger, since the sweet and pungent tastes marry well.
When immigrants came to America, they bought their home cures and folk remedies along, a legacy of mothers and grandmothers. It is surprising how many families still turn to ginger as the first remedy for coughs and colds, and even motion sickness.
Ginger – Home Cures
For Ambalika Mishra, a radio commentator who lives in New York, ginger is both a health aid and culinary must-have. Mishra, who hails from Agra, uses it for a number of home cures, from colds to nausea. She recalls when the weather turns cool, everyone starts drinking ginger tea, because it is warming. Last year when she visited home for a wedding, she was plagued by a dry cough which had lasted almost a month. Her grandmother promptly got her to chew a piece of ginger every day – and the cough was history. As soon as her own children have a cough or cold coming on, Mishra ministers them a spoonful of ginger juice mixed with honey because it is effective and, unlike medicines, has no side effects.
And then of course, there’s the added bonus of the superlative taste of ginger which is a must in the construction of almost every Indian dish, no matter from which region. Says Mishra: “I always have ginger in my fridge – I put it in all my cooking because it’s good for digestion.” In fact, from childhood she has served ‘nimbu ki adrak’ – minced ginger soaked in lemon juice – with all the meals, along with pickles and chutneys as a dietary aid.
The testimonials come from noted chefs too. “Ginger is a warming spice, and one of the legendary medicinal spices, used the world over for everything from a sore throat to an upset stomach,” says Floyd Cardoz, the noted chef, in his book, ‘One Spice, Two Spice: American Food, Indian Flavors.’ Cardoz uses ginger in many recipes from Goan Spiced Crab Cakes to Indian-influenced French Onion soup.
As an article about the value of spices in the Knight Ridder newspapers noted, “Ginger earns its age-old reputation as a stomach-settler and a purifier. It has cholesterol-lowering, artery-degunking antioxidants and anti-fungal, blood-clotting and even cancer fighting properties. You can’t make Asian or Indian food without it. Or gingerbread! While the FDA doesn’t regulate spices, it categorizes all the above as GRAS (generally recognized as safe) so ban the bland and take your medicine – it’s delicious.”
Ginger also has anti-inflammatory properties and Runner’s World quoted Neal Barnard, MD, author of Foods That Fight Pain and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington DC as saying, “It works like Ibuprofen, but without the side effects.”
Its virtues are known in all Asian cultures and it is an important ingredient in the cuisines of South Asian and Far Eastern countries as well as the Caribbean. The benefits of ginger include relief from indigestion, nausea and reduction of inflammation associated with arthritis and rheumatism, and it is also helpful in alleviating asthma and bronchitis.
Researchers at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center have started investigations which showed promise for ginger as a potential ovarian cancer treatment, and this research was published in December 2007 in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Ginger is effective at controlling inflammation and inflammation contributes to the development of ovarian cancer cells. By halting the inflammatory reaction, the researchers suspect, ginger also stops cancer cells from growing.
Ginger’s Great Taste
With all its medical benefits, it’s really a big plus point that ginger also tastes great and is so vital to Indian cuisine. According to cooking expert Julie Sahni, fresh ginger is one of the three main seasonings – the other being onions and ginger – which form the basis of most of the sauces in North Indian cooking. In ‘Classic Indian Cooking’ she mentions that fresh ginger root is valued much more than garlic or onion because of its extensive use in Indian vegetarian cooking ; garlic and onions are more commonly associated with non-vegetarian cooking and are often a no-no for Jains and Hindu Brahmins.
“Almost all curry recipes include ginger and garlic. The traditional method is to chop them finely and fry them along with the onions. They are usually used together, often in almost equal quantities,” writes Camellia Panjabi, author of “50 Great Curries of India’. Ginger seems to be ubiquitous in almost all curries, be it the North Indian Rogan Josh, the West Indian Bori Curry, Mutton Curry Andhra style or fish in mustard sauce from East India.
Indeed, ginger is an important ingredient in South Asian and Far East cuisine, and recipes call for everything from fresh ginger to ginger powder to crystallized ginger. Pickled ginger is popular in Asian cuisines and in India, of course, we have ginger achaar. One can also sneak ginger into dishes which don’t usually list it as an ingredient. Recently I added it to a home-made vegetable soup and it definitely turned something bland into a very heart-warming brew.
There are of course many ways of getting your daily ginger dose and a teaspoonful of ginger juice or some grated ginger in your meal is a good idea. One also hears of ginger-laced drinks from ginger ale to ginger beer to the many cooling gingery summer drinks in India. In the west you see the spice most often in jams, cookies and cakes while in Asian restaurants, most meals end with a ginger candy to help digestion.
Ginger is now big even in desserts, and Jehangir Mehta, whose new dessert book ‘Mantra: The Rules of Indulgence’ showcases his bold juxtapositions of fruits and spices, often uses ginger in his creations. The trick, he says, is to combine ginger with milk products, chocolate or sorbets which can absorb the pungent flavor.
Yes, this rather strange looking rhizome may never be a celebrity in the mode of Ginger of the Spice Girls, but it’s vital to cuisine and well-being in many parts of the world. Its popularity in America has risen with each new immigrant group which brings its own foods and culture to Main Street, and shares it with the mainstream.
As for the bunch of Indian-Americans in the beach house, they started the day with ginger and ended it with ginger: the dinner at a Thai restaurant on the waterfront had the subtleties of ginger mixed in every flavorful bite.
Text © Lavina Melwani
FROM THE COOKING EXPERTS – GINGERLY SPEAKING
*To make ginger juice, puree one cup of chopped, peeled fresh ginger in a blender with 3 tablespoons of warm water. Press through a fine sieve, reserving the juice and discarding the solids. Ginger juice may be frozen.
– Raji Jallepalli – Raji Cuisine.
* When finely grated ginger is required, it should first be peeled and then grated on the finest part of a grater so it turns into pulp. When a recipe requires that 2.5 cm/I inch of ginger be grated, it is best to keep that piece attached t the large knob. The knob acts as a handle and saves you from grating your fingers.
– Madhur Jaffrey – A Taste of the Far East.
* When a recipe calls for sliced ginger, peel it and cut it crosswise, across the grain. Because the fibers run the length of the rhizome, that will prevent any stringiness.
– Floyd Cardoz – One Spice, Two Spice.