The homely Ginger doesn’t get its due. But in fact, it’s a widely used spice in both sweet and savoury dishes with an ancient lineage to match. Ignore it at your own peril!
There is a caste system among spices, and it’s based on price, an economic tool that we all know is often flawed. Take the expensive and elusive saffron. How much can you use of it and frankly, how many dishes do you know that call for it? Ginger (Zingiber officinale), on the other hand, is cheaper and much further down the caste hierarchy. This is indeed surprising given that it’s a versatile spice, a staple in dishes on every continent and its historical antecedents are nothing to sneer at. Once you add medicinal and alleged aphrodisiacal properties to these virtues, it can vanquish any bigot! So I’m rooting for ginger (pun unintended) – fresh, grated, powdered, pickled and so on, for good reason: it works in savoury as well as sweet dishes, can be eaten raw as well as cooked and is seen in alcoholic and non alcoholic drinks.
Ginger was once native to south east Asia, but is now grown in all tropical countries – India, China, Taiwan, West Africa, Jamaica, Mauritius and Australia. It needs a pronounced wet and dry season for the bulbous knobbed rhizome to come to harvest. Only the tender young stem and the part just below it, the root, are consumed. Its leaves are shiny green blades and for a short while you get to see yellow and purple tipped flowers. This is peripheral information, after all spices are not known for their looks. On the flavour front: Niki Segnit in her book ‘The Flavour Thesaurus’ says, ‘Fresh ginger has a lemony, woody and earthy tone with a kick of heat. Jamaican ginger has a richness and an almost camphorous pungency that distinguishes it from the lemony varieties and brings it closer to cardamom’.
Once the root and stem are harvested, they can be consumed immediately. For pickled ginger, only the most tender, young stem ginger must be used. For ginger powder, mature rhizomes are used. As to be expected, on the flavour scale, young signifies a sweeter less pronounced flavour, while the spicier warmer flavour comes from the mature one. Ginger can also be preserved in syrup or crystallized.
If you’ve read thus far, you’re probably wondering when was the last time your taste buds identified this particular flavour? So let’start in the East and see how it goes.
Those gentle pink slivers of pickled ginger that come with a plate of Sushi, are meant as palate cleansers. Their bright, sharp flavour does indeed sweep all other flavours aside and leave your taste buds ready for the next adventure. In south east Asian cooking, finely sliced fresh ginger juliennes are tossed with garlic, spring onion and lemon grass to give that distinctive signature to food from this area.
In Indian and sub continental cooking, ginger is a star, transforming the most mundane into something quite festive. Note the slivered fresh ginger and green chillies that adorn slow cooked lentils, adding freshness and piquancy to the dal’s smooth and mellow flavours. My grandmother, as I’m sure most self respecting cooks, would not hear of a curry without the ubiquitous ginger garlic paste, once freshly ground now freely sold in tiny sachets at the local shop. It gives curries that necessary heat and heaviness, offsetting the tartness of the souring agent – tamarind, curd, kokum etc.
Even simple dishes beg their share of ginger: Poha without finely chopped ginger would be bland (as would cheesy scrambled eggs). Then there is ginger chai – the global remedy for a cold. A small piece of ginger needs to be swiftly crushed or grated and dropped into the saucepan to boil along with the water for the tea. A generous amount of sugar is usually called for. Not only does ginger have a citrusy tang that blends perfectly with the caffeine kick of tea, but it infuses a warm spicy aroma that clears the sinuses. (Cardamom tea on the other hand, has a heavy, rich feel and it’s the tea you serve to formal guests.)
Moving westwards to Europe, ginger is almost defeated by the locally popular garlic in savoury dishes, but manages to win the war in the sweet section. Take the German Lebkuchen, also known as Pfefferkuchen, a traditional Christmas cookie. It’s the German gingerbread cookie, round or rectangular with a sweet and spicy taste and aroma. Adding nuts gives it a crunch. It’s first recorded origins date back to the 1300 AD when they were introduced into Germany through Belgium and came to be baked by monks. As many of the ingredients (including ginger) were not easily available in this cold region, only cities that were on international trade routes to the East, could get the recipe right. Even today, the most famous Lebkuchen come from famous old cities.
In English cooking, ginger quickly breaches the savoury vs sweet divide with gingerbread, ginger biscuits and Parkin (a traditional sponge cake from northern England flavoured with syrupy molasses, oatmeal and ginger). Gingerbread recipes run true to form and include dried ginger powder and other complimentary flavours like allspice, cloves and nutmeg.
The local bakers’ ginger cookies often don’t hit the spot because they have too much sugar and too little butter. Look for that perfectly crunchy cookie where the butter blends into the caramel tasting molasses and the ginger is fresh and fragrant. She’s the perfect one to accompany a cup of fine tea, a dark coffee or a tall glass of lemonade.
If you’re still not impressed by ginger, here’s a recipe that will definitely knock some sense into your taste buds!
In a saucepan, heat: 100gms butter + 1 cup of date or jaggery syrup + ¼ cup of brown sugar + 3 tbsps of marmalade ( + 1 tsp ginger juice if not using powder.) Once the sugar has dissolved, set aside to cool.
Whisk in 2 eggs and 1 cup milk to the above.
Sift: 1 cup cake flour + I cup whole wheat flour + 1 tsp ground cinnamon + 1 tsp ground ginger + 1 ½ tsp baking powder + ¼ tsp baking soda + ¼ tsp salt
Combine the dry and wet ingredients, but don’t over mix or you will have a tough textured cake. A few lumps is fine.
Bake at 325F in a butter paper lined and dusted pan for 50 mts or until done.
Heat 40 gms of butter + juice of 1-2 limes + 3 tbsp sugar in a saucepan until sugar dissolves. Pour over warm cake, invert cake and pour over bottom too. Let it stand for a few hours before slicing and serving.
Featured illustration by Tasneem Amiruddin