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Ginger: Spice of the Ages

posted on: Apr 26, 2022

Ginger: Spice of the Ages

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

For centuries, coveted it by Chinese and Indian cooks, ginger, in the last few decades, has become revered in many of the European and North American kitchens. Forming the bases for innumerable dishes, this seasoning is, today, employed on a large scale in almost every country throughout the globe. A good number of cooks say that the secret of the world-renowned Chinese cuisine is this condiment which some have labeled ‘spice of the ages’. 

Besides gingerbread and ginger ale with which every child is familiar, ginger beer, ginger brandy, ginger coffee, ginger tea, ginger wine, candied ginger and countless other ginger products have become part of our daily lives. In recent years, the Indian proverb which says that ‘every good quality is found in ginger’ has been taken to heart in many parts of the world.

In the ancient eastern lands, the peppery biting taste of ginger has been appreciated since biblical times.  It was mentioned by Confucius in the 5th century BC and is believed to have been brought by the Arabs a few centuries later to the Greek city states and in subsequent years to the Roman world. This led the Roman historian Pliny to mistakenly state that ginger was native to Arabia. 

First cultivated in southeastern Asia, it was among the first spices introduced into Europe. However, for hundreds of years it remained a rare and expensive commodity. The ginger plant was one of the wonders Marco Polo found in 13th century China and in the Medieval Europe, of that era, a pound of ginger would buy a sheep.  One of the few spices to enter English literature, it was mentioned by Chaucer in his works and Shakespeare wrote in King Henry V, “He’s of the color of nutmeg and the heat of ginger”.  

Now grown extensively in the Caribbean, Central America, China, India, Indonesia and West Africa, ginger, which derives its name from the Sanskrit sringavera (shaped like a horn), is the root of a perennial herb of the genus zingiber.  Cultivated for this edible potato-like root, the plant thrives in tropical climates.  It grows up to 3 feet high with wide erect stalkless leaves shooting up from the tuberous underground roots.

When the plant is about 5 months old, the rhizomes or roots, which in the spice trade are called ‘hands’, are harvested.  They are then washed, and sun dried.  The most important of the several varieties of ginger rhizomes’ have a light brown skin and, when peeled or scraped, their flesh is creamy yellow to light green in color. Juicy, hot and fibrous, it has a pungent flavor and refreshing sharpness with a somewhat sweet taste.  To many culinary artists, ginger is more fragrant, richer and pervasive than any other herb or spice. Its aromatic oil gives it a unique inviting aroma, imparting to dishes with which it is cooked an appetizing appeal. 

In the past, ginger was not only used in foods but also as a medicine.  It was part of external home remedies such as compresses and utilized as an ingredient in medical preparations.  According to R. Landry in The Gentle Art of Flavoring, ginger was included in the pharmacopoeia of the Arabs.  King Henry VIII of England believed that it could cure the plague and the Indians have long made a paste which they believe keeps away scurvy.  For generations, herb doctors have said that it fortifies the chest and have prescribed ginger tea for colds.

Containing cellulose, pentosans, protein, starch, mineral elements such as lime and calcium and a small quantity of volatile oil – a fixed oil with high-flavored resinous matter, ginger has digestive properties and is useful as a salt substitute.  It is a good stimulant and carminative – much used for dyspepsia and colic.  Its pungency and sapid flavor awaken the appetite and disguises the taste of nauseous medicines.

Ginger is sold fresh, canned, dried, ground or powdered, crystallized, and preserved.  Most types can be found in Oriental or Mediterranean markets and the majority of supermarkets.

The best fresh ginger comes from India and Jamaica and is much sought after by gourmet cooks.  When the raw product is stored, it keeps well in a refrigerator for a few weeks.  However, if to be kept for a long period of time, the roots should be peeled, wrapped in plastic or foil and then frozen.  At the time of use, the amount needed can be grated off the rhizomes and the remainder returned to the freezer.

Fresh ginger is much superior to the well-known dried ground product.  Nevertheless, the powdered spice can be substituted for the fresh.  It is one of the most versatile of all seasonings and widely used in an endless range of foods.

One of the most important uses of ground ginger in western cooking is in the making of gingerbreads – according to a number of historians, the oldest sweet cake in the world.  The Greeks are credited with inventing this dessert which in the Mediterranean area became known as melitate.  Through the ages, it became popular to make this cake in fanciful shapes like animals, birds, humans, houses, and letters of the alphabet.  In some communities, a host/hostess can bestow no greater honor that baking a gingerbread cake for her/her guest.

Peeled sliced ginger in cans can also be utilized in place of the fresh, but it is not as flavorful.  Whole dried roots are used for pickles and chutneys while preserved or candied ginger which is the fresh rhizomes cooked in syrup, are utilized as confections or condiments.  For stir-fry dishes and salad dressings, a juice, obtained by squeezing fresh ginger through a garlic press, gives these foods a delectable flavoring.

Ginger in all its forms can be employed as a seasoning in a great number of foods and beverages. A tasty aromatic rootstock, it adds an exotic touch and zest to appetizers, bakery products, curries, jams, marinades, pickles, preserves, puddings, sauces, soups, stews, drinks and all types of fruits, meats, and vegetables. Imbuing victuals with a mouth-watering tang, the spice of the ages has become an essential ingredient in the kitchens of the world. 

Ginger Yogurt Dip

Ginger: Spice of the Ages

1 cup plain yogurt

1/4 cup pulverized almonds

2 tablespoons finely chopped green onions

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves or parsley

1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger root 

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 clove garlic, crushed

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

1 small tomato, finely chopped 

  1. Thoroughly combine all the ingredients except the tomato in a mixing bowl, then transfer to a serving platter.
  2. Decorate with the tomato, then serve with crackers. 

Ginger Chicken and Noodle Soup

Ginger: Spice of the Ages

Serves 8

2 tablespoons cooking oil

1 1/2 pounds boneless chicken, cut into small pieces

1 small hot pepper, seeded and finely chopped

3 tablespoons grated fresh ginger root

1 1/2 cups finely chopped green onions

4 cloves garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

7 cups water

1 cup fine noodles, broken into small pieces

4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves 

  1. Heat the cooking oil in a saucepan, then sauté the chicken and hot pepper over medium heat for 10 minutes.
  2. Add the ginger and stir-fry for a further 3 minutes, then stir in the remaining ingredients except the noodles and coriander leaves and bring to a boil.
  3. Cover and cook over medium heat for 15 minutes, then stir in the noodles and re-cover. 
  4. Cook for further 15 minutes, then stir in the coriander leaves and serve. 

Ginger Flavored Chickpea and Tomato Stew

Ginger: Spice of the Ages

Serves 8

2 cups chickpeas, soaked overnight in 9 cups water and 1/4 teaspoon baking soda

4 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium onions, finely chopped

6 cloves garlic, crushed

1 small hot pepper, seeded and finely chopped

2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger root

1 can stewed tomatoes (19 oz. 540 mL)

4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves or parsley

1 teaspoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper 

  1. Place the chickpeas with their water in a large saucepan and bring to a boil, then cover and cook over medium heat for 1 1/2 hours or until the chickpeas are done.
  2. In the meantime, heat the oil in a frying pan and sauté the onions, garlic and hot pepper over medium heat for 10 minutes, then stir in the ginger and stir-fry for a further 3 minutes.
  3. And the frying pan contents and the remaining ingredients to the chickpeas and bring to a boil, that cover and cook over medium heat for 15 minutes.
  4. Serve hot or cold. 

Note:  Excellent for the main course or as a side dish or for snacks.

Ginger Flavored Peas

Ginger: Spice of the Ages

Serves 4 to 6

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium onions, chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed 

1/2 small hot pepper, seeded and finely chopped

1 1/2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger root

1 package frozen peas (1 lb. 454 g) 

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 cup water 

  1. Heat the oil in a saucepan and sauté the onions, garlic and hot pepper over medium heat for 10 minutes, then add the ginger and stir fry for a further 3 minutes.
  2. Stir in the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil, then cover and cook over medium heat for 25 minutes or until most of the liquid has evaporated and the peas are done.
  3. Serve hot or cold. 

Eggplant and Lentil Stew

Ginger: Spice of the Ages

Serves 8

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1/2 hot pepper, seeded and finely chopped

1 medium eggplant, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1 1/2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger root

4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

4 medium tomatoes, finely chopped

5 cups water

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon cumin

1 cup lentils, rinsed 

  1. Heat the oil in a frying pan and sauté the onion, garlic and hot pepper over medium heat for 10 minutes, then add the eggplant and ginger and stir-fry for a further 3 minutes. (Add more oil if necessary.)
  2. Stir in the coriander leaves and tomatoes and stir fry for a further 5 minutes and add the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil.
  3. Cover and cook over medium heat for 15 minutes or until the lentils are well cooked, then serve hot or cold. 

Ginger Fish Fillet

Ginger: Spice of the Ages

Serves 6 to 8

2 pounds boneless fish filet

1/2 cup grapefruit juice

4 tablespoons cooking oil

1 cup chopped green onions

4 cloves garlic, crushed

4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger root 

1 teaspoon ground mustard

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper 

  1. Place the fish fillet evenly in a greased pan, then set aside.
  2. Mix the remaining ingredients in a bowl, then pour over the fish filet and bake in a 350o F preheated oven for 30 minutes or until the fillet is done, turning over once, and basting a few times with the pan juices. 
  3. Served with the pan juice and mashed potatoes or cooked rice. 

Ginger-Flavored Baked Fish

Ginger: Spice of the Ages

Serves 4 to 6

1 white or similar type fish, from 3 to 4 pounds

1/2 head garlic, peeled and crushed

1/2 cup finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

2 tablespoons cooking oil

2 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger root

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1/8 teaspoon cayenne 

  1. Scale, clean and wash the fish, then set aside.
  2. Place the remaining ingredients in a food processor and process into a paste, then rub the inside and outside of the fish which has been placed on a piece of aluminum foil with the paste.
  3. Wrap the fish with the aluminum foil and place in a baking pan, then bake in a 350o F preheated oven for 35 minutes.
  4. Remove the foil and serve hot. 

Ginger-Flavored Moroccan Style Chicken and Raisin Stew

Ginger: Spice of the Ages

Serves 4

4 tablespoons butter

1-pound boneless chicken, cut into small pieces

1 cup finely chopped parsley

2 medium onions, chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1/2 small hot pepper, seeded and finely chopped 

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger root

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 1/2 cups water

1/2 cup raisins, rinsed 

  1. Place the butter in a saucepan melt, then sauté the chicken pieces over medium heat for five minutes.
  2. Stir in the remaining ingredients except the water and raisins and stir-fry for a further 10 minutes, then add the water and bring to a boil.
  3. Cover and cook over medium heat for 30 minutes, then add the raisins and cover.
  4. Cook for a further 20 minutes or until the chicken is done, adding more water if necessary, then serve hot. 

Ginger Honey Muffins

Ginger: Spice of the Ages

Makes 12 muffins

1/2 cup butter

1/2 cup honey

1/2 cup water

1 egg, beaten

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

1 3/4 cups flour

3 teaspoons baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger 

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 

  1. Place the butter, honey, water, egg and almond extract in a food processor and process for a minute, then set aside.
  2. Combine the remaining ingredients in a mixing bowl, then gradually add the food processor’s contents and thoroughly mixed.
  3. Place in well-greased muffin pan 2/3 full, then bake in a 350o F preheated oven for 25 minutes. 

Gingerbread Cake

Ginger: Spice of the Ages

1 cup yogurt

1 cup honey

1/2 cup butter

1 egg, beaten

2 cups flour

3 tablespoons baking powder

2 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon baking soda 

  1. Place the yogurt, honey, butter, and egg in a food processor and process for a minute, then set aside.
  2. Combine the remaining ingredients in a mixing bowl, then gradually add the food processor’s contents and mix into a smooth paste.
  3. Pour into a well-greased baking pan, then bake in a 350o F preheated oven for 35 minutes. 

Ginger Tea

Ginger: Spice of the Ages

Makes about 4 cups tea

A very racy and full-bodied drink, ginger tea is also a satisfying and healthy beverage.

2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger root

2 tablespoons honey

1 cinnamon stick, 2-inches to 3-inches long

4 cloves

5 cups water 

  1. Place all the ingredients in a pot and bring to a boil, then cover and simmer over medium heat for 40 minutes.
  2. Strain into cups and serve. 

Arab Ginger Coffee

Ginger: Spice of the Ages

3 tablespoons pulverized coffee

2 tablespoons brown sugar

2 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger

2 cups water 

  1. Place all the ingredients in a small coffee pot and stir, then bring to a boil.
  2. Remove from the heat until the boiling dies down, then return to the boil and repeat 2 more times.
  3. Serve in demitasse cups.