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Ginger, Zingiber officinale, is native to India and China. It takes its name from the Sanskrit word stringa-vera, which means "with a body like a horn", as in antlers. Ginger has been important in Chinese medicine for many centuries, and is mentioned in the writings of Confucius. It is also named in the Koran, the sacred book of the Moslems, indicating it was known in Arab countries as far back as 650 A.D. It was one of the earliest spice known in Western Europe, used since the ninth century. It became so popular in Europe that it was included in every table setting, like salt and pepper. A common article of medieval and Renaissance trade, it was one of the spices used against the plague. In English pubs and taverns in the nineteenth century, barkeepers put out small containers of ground ginger, for people to sprinkle into their beer -- the origin of ginger ale. In order to "gee up" a lazy horse, it is the time honoured practice of Sussex farmers to apply a pinch of ginger to the animal's backside..
Preparation and Storage
In Asian cooking ginger is almost always used fresh, either minced, crushed or sliced. Fresh ginger can be kept for several weeks in the salad drawer of the refrigerator. Dried ginger should be "bruised" by beating it to open the fibers, then infused in the cooking or making ginger beer and removed when the flavour is sufficient. Store dried and powdered ginger in airtight containers.
Although often called "ginger root" it is actually a rhizome. It is available in various forms, the most common of which are as follows:
Whole raw roots
Generally referred to as fresh ginger. A piece of the rhizome, called a "hand". It has a pale yellow interior and a skin varying in colour from brown to off-white. Jamaican ginger, which is pale buff, is regarded as the best variety. African and Indian ginger is darker skinned and generally inferior, with the exception of Kenya ginger. Buy fresh ginger
Whole fresh roots provide the freshest taste. The roots are collected and shipped when they are still immature, the outer skin is a light green colour. These can sometimes be found in Oriental markets.
Dried roots are sold either "black" with the root skin left on, or "white" with the skin peeled off. The dried root is available whole or sliced.
Powdered ginger is the buff-coloured ground spice made from dried root. Buy powdered (ground) ginger
Preserved ginger or "stem" ginger is made from fresh young roots, peeled and sliced, then cooked in a heavy sugar syrup. The ginger pieces and syrup are canned together. They are soft and pulpy, but extremely hot and spicy. Buy stem ginger
Crystallized ginger is cooked in sugar syrup, then air dried and rolled in sugar. Buy crystallized ginger
Pickled ginger has the root sliced paper-thin and pickled in a vinegar solution. This pickle is known in Japan as gari , which often accompanies sushi, and is served to refresh the palate between courses. Buy pickled ginger