Ginger is a interesting spice with many medicinal and culinary uses. A popular spice over 5000 years ago, it is still popular today and used in the cooking of both Eastern and Western cultures.
Native to Southeastern Asia, ginger was used over 5000 years ago in Chinese medicine and has many health properties. It is well known for its ability to soothe digestive ailments which is probably why we still reach for comfort in a bottle of ginger ale when we have a stomach ache!
The oils in ginger cause more digestive enzymes to be produced which helps to neutralize stomach acids and can relive nausea, diarrhea and cramping. It can also aid in digestion and assimilation of nutrients. Ginger is so powerful in reliving nausea that it is used in treating both motion sickness and morning sickness. Other health benefits of ginger include better circulation, blood being less likely to clot, and lowering of cholesterol levels. In addition, tests on animals have shown that ginger might be able to inhibit growth of cancer tumors.
In history, Ginger was used extensively by the ancient Romans and was later traded in Europe by the Arabs who took the rhizomes on their travels and then planted them in other tropical places such as Zanzibar and Africa. Europeans loved it to flavor drinks but since a pound of ginger cost as much as an entire sheep, it was used sparingly. Today, ginger is a less expensive and grown in many subtropical areas. It’s lovely flowers are so appealing that it is often used in landscaping.
The ginger plant itself, Zingiber officinale, is a perennial which can grow to about 3 of 4 feet and produces clusters of pink and white flowers. Although the leaves are sometimes eaten, it is the rhizome or underground stem that is of medicinal and culinary interest. This stem is a chunky root-like thing with a thin brown skin and hard light flesh inside. It is often erroneously called ginger root since the rhizome resembles a root but this is actually not the root of the plant at all but an underground “stem”.
Ginger production is actually a fairly simple process. Ginger is propagated by planting a piece of the rhizome which will grow into another plant. It is usually harvested after 5 months, but it really depends on what you want to use the rhizome for. The older a ginger plant becomes, the more essential oils are present and the more pungent is the taste. Younger plants are good for cooking while older ones are generally better for medicinal purposes.
Ginger is great in many dishes and is often seen in Asian cuisine. It is sometimes pickled and eaten as a treat. In the West, we most often use ginger in baking in sweets such as gingerbread, but it can really go great in any kind of dish.