Ginger: Ale to Ailments!By Dennis Linden An international spice used in cuisines around the globe, from stir-fry to sauerbraten, providing a zing of pleasant pungency that both complements and intensifies other flavors
is a very ancient spice whose roots can be traced to Southeast Asia where it has been used since before written history as both an ingredient and medicinal aid. Arab traders introduced it to the Mediterranean; those wandering, conquering Romans spread it throughout Europe as they built their empire. During the Middle Ages it was literally worth its weight in gold and Queen Elizabeth I is credited with coming up with the first holiday gingerbread man. Fact check: I think she stole the idea from the Greeks, who had been baking cookies with Ginger for a couple of centuries before the queen was in her royal kitchen!
It was the search for a more direct source to two valuable spices, namely ginger and pepper, which launched Columbus on his infamous cruise. Instead, he bumped into the Caribbean Islands with some ginger aboard. Today Jamaican ginger garners a premium in the global marketplace as it is prized for its strong, distinctive flavor; ginger beer is a very popular regional beverage throughout the Caribbean. Fact Check II: By the 18th Century the seasoning was easy to obtain and inexpensive. English pubs provided customers with powdered ginger to sprinkle in their ale to give it a little extra flavor punch or, perhaps, to mask the taste of inferior brew. Both Jamaican ginger beer and the American ginger ale were born out of this tradition. No doubt it was our Puritan heritage in this country that had a hand in turning a perfectly good brew with a kick into a soft drink!
By the way, speaking of roots, Ginger is not one! Botanically speaking, it is a rhizome, which is a stem that grows under the ground; the real roots of the ginger plant grow from this Rhizome. It sure looks like a root, so this mistaken identity has been going on for centuries. The now totally accepted misnomer probably started with an Arab trader who did not want to explain the difference to his Mediterranean customers; besides, fresh ginger rhizome would have definitely been a much harder sell!
As a culinary ingredient, ginger is as basic as salt in all Asian cuisines. However, the spice can enliven dishes of almost any nationality, from stir-fry to sauerbraten, with a zing of pleasant pungency that both complements and intensifies other flavors. The ginger rhizome can be yellow, white or red in color, depending upon the variety. It is covered with a brownish skin that may either be thick or thin, depending upon when the plant is harvested.
Fresh ginger comes in young and mature forms. Young ginger has a mild flavor and thin skin that requires no peeling. The skin of mature ginger is very tough and requires peeling before it is chopped or grated. In selecting ginger, a good rule of thumb to remember is that larger pieces are more mature and more pungent. However, watch for any wrinkling of the skin, as it is a sign of age and deteriorated flavor. Store fresh ginger with its peel still on in a small paper bag or wrapped in a paper towel in the refrigerator for up to three weeks. Unpeeled Ginger is more perishable, but can be frozen for up to six months.
Not a regular user of ginger? Here’s a great starter blend to get you in the culinary habit of cooking more with this wonderful seasoning. Ginger and Garlic Paste Recipe: Peel, chop and combine 4 ounces of garlic and 4 ounces of fresh ginger with one tablespoon of olive oil in a blender; transfer the mixture to a small jar and refrigerate. Use a spoonful of this delicious blend as a flavoring in savory dishes, soups or stir-fry. The taste that ginger imparts to a dish depends upon when it is added during the cooking process. If included at the start of preparation, the spice will lend a subtler flavor than if added near the end, which will deliver a more pungent taste.
For Melissa’s, fresh Ginger is one of our most popular products. So much so, that to keep a supply year-around we import the best quality we can find from China, Thailand, Brazil and/or Hawaii, depending upon the time of year.
An article about ginger would not be complete without calling attention to the medicinal qualities that have been attributed to the rhizome since the days of Confucius. As a recreational sailor, I can attest to the superiority of ginger in any form (tea, soft drink, powder or pill) over Dramamine, a popular over-the-counter drug for motion sickness. Ginger reduces all symptoms associated with motion sickness including dizziness, nausea and vomiting. Plus, it can be taken during motion sickness, unlike Dramamine that must be taken before symptoms become apparent.
The anti-inflammatory properties of ginger have been valued for centuries and now scientific research supports the fact that ginger contains components that are instrumental in reducing the pain of rheumatoid arthritis by encouraging blood circulation. In fact, the list of maladies that ginger has been associated with helping is quite impressive. Especially taken in tea form, ginger relieves gas and bloating, stops diarrhea, boosts digestion, calms menstrual cramps, sooths headaches, has anti-cancer properties, stabilizes blood pressure and lowers cholesterol!
The Ginger Bath – myth or magic? In doing research for this article, I came upon many references and testimonials espousing the use of ginger as a powerful bath water supplement that supposedly acts as a poor man’s substitute for a sauna or steam bath. It was reported that soaking in the spice stimulated the skin and caused profuse sweating, both during and for a good hour after the bath. Sweating is a very efficient way of cleansing the body of toxins by opening up all of one’s pores. This was intriguing, so I just had to try it.
The first recipe called for one-half cup of grated ginger mixed into a hot bath and a soak for 20 minutes. The reader will be spared the pictures, but know that I felt pretty silly after about 30 minutes, sitting in a tub of now lukewarm ginger-water when it became apparent that nothing was tingling or sweating. In fact, I would say that the only sweat was incurred in cleaning the tub of pipe-clogging ginger bits!
Undaunted, I blamed this first failed recipe on the cook and tried another formula a few days later; this time using powdered ginger. While I now know what my annual Thanksgiving smoked duck feels like marinating in brownish brine, not a drop of sweat was produced. At least that also included the clean-up, which was just a matter of pulling the plug. So I am going to have to bust this myth and counsel that ginger may be a versatile spice, but it is probably a good idea to keep it out of your bath water.
I can report one stimulating ginger recipe discovery that did work and might be especially useful on these cold January nights. On most blustery winter evenings here in the Pacific Northwest, I am in the habit of keeping a pot of hard apple cider laced with cinnamon percolating on top of my wood-burner stove whenever I have a fire going. It puts the wonderful smell of apple-cinnamon in the air, as well as a warming glow on yours truly. Last night, I got the bright idea to swap out the cinnamon for a few chunks of peeled ginger. The combination was absolutely delicious in a pungent, spicy cider sort of a way. I also noticed that halfway through the second mug a bit of sweat had formed on my brow! As to whether this perspiration was due to the temperature of the fire, the alcohol content of the cider or, perhaps, the ginger, will take more research. A project that I expect to be more interesting and fun than testing bath waters!