By Virginia Rainey
Spicy, fresh, and filled with medicinal magic, ginger is winter's warmest ingredient, adding spice to life on every level. Brewed into teas, stirred into vegetables, or extracted into detoxifying spa treatments, the roots of ginger have intermingled with health and well-being for centuries. Long associated with tastes of the Far East, the influence of this multitasking botanical is enjoying new interpretations well beyond those horizons and into kitchens–and spa treatment rooms–around the world.
Knobby, gnarled, and cloaked in a thin, pale skin, fresh ginger hides her power as a pungent seductress. But peel that papery skin away and she reveals a world of possibilities–from culinary to medicinal. By turns warm and spicy, lemony and sharp, with a faintly floral aroma, this racy rhizome tingles the tongue and lips and settles an upset tummy.
Most sources agree that ginger originated in, or between, Asia and India–so far b.c. that its ancient beginnings are obscured. Its name derives from the Sanskrit word sringavera, which translates as "horn-root," perhaps referring to its resemblance to little antlers. Fresh ginger is often referred to as gingerroot, but that term will get you into hot water with botanists. Technically, it's a rhizome–the tuberlike bottom of the stem of the ginger plant, whose species name is Zingiber officinale. Though the rhizome's smaller branches or "fingers" grow underground, it actually has its own roots.
Malay and Ayurvedic healing traditions celebrate ginger's warming properties, and when used in luscious wraps, it can detoxify and balance the body. Ginger's efficacy as a system cleanser lies in its diuretic qualities, enabling it in effect to "sweat" the system naturally by drawing water from the skin with its heat.
Fresh-cut ginger steeped in a cup of hot water is a time-honored digestive aid. In fact, in various forms, ginger has been shown to ease nausea (including morning and motion sickness), heartburn, stomach cramps, and the loss of appetite. Add honey and lemon juice to a simple elixir made with ginger and hot water, and you may ease the nastiest of cold symptoms, sip by fragrant sip. Ginger's reputation as an anti-inflammatory is well documented in both Eastern and Western medicine, and though not as intensely studied, there are hints of its efficacy as an aphrodisiac. All the same, chewing on a sliver or two of peeled ginger will at least sweeten your breath.
As for its role in the culinary world, the warm spiciness and zing of fresh ginger is used to balance the yin ingredients in a dish. A staple of Asian cuisines, this assertive star illuminates fish, pork, beef, chicken, and vegetables with equal zest, giving rise to blissful and harmonious taste sensations, especially when paired with lemongrass or garlic. And what would Indian chutneys and pickles be without the sassy bite of fresh ginger? The flavor resonates through Moroccan tagines, the peanut sauces of Africa and Brazil, the picadillos of Cuba, and on around the world. Fresh ginger is also the darling of chefs from Australia to America who work magic with the spice and ingredients as disparate as rice and maple syrup. No matter the origin of a recipe, the bottom line is this: There is no substitute for fresh ginger.
The best ginger is heavy and firm. Choose pieces with rough skin rather than smooth, as smooth-skinned ginger tends to be more fibrous and have less complex flavor. Avoid ginger with wrinkled skin, discoloration, or mold, indications that it's far past its prime. A vegetable peeler works well for removing the thin skin. It's easiest to break large pieces of ginger into smaller ones and maneuver as best you can. Store fresh ginger wrapped in a paper towel, in a paper bag, in the vegetable drawer of your refrigerator for up to three weeks. Slice peeled ginger into matchsticks or chop, grate, puree, or mince it according to its final use. Heat dissipates its flavor, so for a more pronounced kick, add all or some of your ginger toward the end of cooking, especially in stir-fries.
Fortunately, ginger is now a staple in supermarkets around the world, but there was a time not long ago when most of us had to seek out Asian markets to find those now-common "hands." Less accessible is young, or early harvest, ginger. Tender and sweet, it has almost translucent skin and pink-tinged tips, and the flesh imparts a milder flavor than more mature ginger–but it also lacks a certain kick and definitely the heat. When cooking with young ginger you can leave the skin on and use it in greater quantities. Whatever its age, it's easy to celebrate the essence of this seductive and soothing ingredient year-round. As an ancient Indian proverb says, "Everything good can be found in ginger."
Natural Wellness appeared in the January/February 2005 issue of Spa magazine. www.spamagazine.com