Ginger is sometimes called "gingerroot"; however, it is actually
a multilobed rhizome, or underground stem. The word "ginger"
comes from the Sanskrit sringavera, meaning "shaped like a deer's
antlers." Ginger grows to about three feet in height. It is perennial,
but it is grown as an annual and is propagated by dividing the roots.
Plant shoots appear in ten days and harvest occurs in seven to ten months.
Ginger’s exact origins are unknown, but it is native to the hot
tropical jungles of Southeast Asia. Ginger was mentioned in 500 BC in
the writing of the philosopher Confucius. Phoenician and Arab traders
first introduced ginger from Southeast Asia to Greece and Rome. It was
used in the Middle East and southern Europe. Later, in the 13th century,
the Arabs introduced it to East Africa and the Portuguese introduced
it to West Africa. The Spanish took it to the West Indies, especially
Jamaica. In Roman times, ginger was a very expensive com-modity (about
fifteen times more expensive than black pepper). In medieval and Tudor
England, ginger was very popular as a medicinal and culinary spice.
In Renaissance England, because ginger powder was so popular, it competed
with salt and pepper on the tables of the wealthy—adding ginger
powder helped offset the taste of spoiled meat!
In medieval and Tudor times, ginger was thought to be a preventative
against the plague and was included in pomanders and potpourris to dispel
odors. Gingerbread was stamped out with molds and sold at fairs. In
the late sixteenth century, Queen Elizabeth I employed a full-time gingerbread
baker. Gingerbread men, called "gingerbread husbands", were
popular at the time. Slabs of gingerbread were even gilded with gold.
Honey was originally used to sweeten the dough; later, sugar and molasses
were introduced. During the American Revolution, ginger was included
in the rations, and crystallized ginger was nibbled at the end of a
meal since it was considered to help digestion. Colonial Americans drank
ginger tea as well as plenty of ginger beer to warm the body.
Chewing ginger itself has a beneficial effect on nausea. However, eating
candied ginger increases nausea because the sugar destroys B vitamins.
Ginger is said to be a painkiller, anti-oxidant and disinfectant. Some
people take ginger to relieve cramps or convulsions or to soothe coughs
and fevers. It is also supposed to be an aphrodisiac.
Cooking with fresh ginger root is very popular, particularly in Indian
and Oriental dishes. Cooking fresh ginger will increase its pungency.
Sliced ginger is used in marinades and, when used in dishes, it is discarded
on the side of the dish as the food is eaten. Grated or chopped ginger
root is used in pastes and braised dishes. Finally, shredded ginger
is used in fried or stir-fried dishes. As a condiment, pickled ginger
is served in Oriental cooking. Ginger is also one of the essential spices
in much Western baking, such as gingerbreads, cakes, and pastries. Middle
Eastern and European dishes developed using dried rather than fresh
ginger because it arrived in that form via the caravan routes. Dried
ginger has a different taste than fresh ginger, and one should not be
substituted for the other. Ginger can be preserved for several months
by chopping and freezing it in a little sherry.