For many people the word ‘ginger’ brings to mind redheads with above average sexual drives, and exceptional fighting abilities. There is, however, another type of ‘ginger’ that people have been familiar with for a millennia. The herb is mentioned in the Koran, the Muslim holy book, indicating that the Arabs knew of the spice as early as 650 A.D. It is also spoken of in the writings of Confucius. Western Europeans have known about the spice since the 9th century.
A native of south eastern Asia, the rhizome’s culinary properties were realized in the thirteenth century and its use became widespread all over Europe. It was a commonly traded plant during the renaissance and medieval times, and even though it was expensive, it was still in high demand. In the nineteenth century, barkeeper's kept containers of ground ginger handy for customers to sprinkle into their beer, which led to the origin of ginger ale.
The botanical name of ginger, Zingiber Officinale, is believed to have originated from its Sanskri name Singabera, meaning ‘horn shaped’; an indication of its physical attributes. While repeatedly called ‘ginger root’, it is really a rhizome, a customized underground plant stem. Depending on the variety sewn, the flesh of ginger can be yellow, red, or white coloured. The skin is light brown in colour and can either be paper thin or fairly thick, depending on whether the plant is harvested when fully mature or still young.
Ginger is available in a variety of forms, but is best when used in its raw state. Dried ginger is available in two forms, as black, which still has the skin, and white, with the skin removed. Powdered ginger is made by grinding the dried root. The dried forms are not as aromatic and spicy as the fresh variety, nor are they as biting. Pickled ginger is cut up and preserved in a solution of spiced vinegar. Crystallized ginger is prepared by cooking the rhizome in sugary syrup, and then air drying before rolling it in sugar.
In the middle ages, it was recommended for nausea, hangovers, travel sickness and flatulence. Ginger is officially a part of the pharmacopeias of China, Austria, Egypt, India, Great Britain, Japan, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. It is used as a dietary supplement in the United States and has approval as a non-prescription drug in Germany.
Preparation & Serving Suggestions
Fresh ginger is prepared by removing the skin as one would remove the skin of an apple. The flesh can then be minced, sliced, or julienned. When the ginger is added during the cooking process, it affects the flavour of the dish. Added at the start it gives the dish a more subtle taste, but add it at the end and it delivers a stronger, more pungent taste.
Ginger is used around the globe in a variety of ways. In parts of the Middle East, the powdered form is used to spice up coffee, and in Egypt ginger is actually served in coffee shops. The traditional drink in Greece, called tsitsibira, is actually a type of ginger beer. In the Caribbean it is used in drink and food recipes. Ginger tea, made with fresh ginger, is a common beverage in Jamaica, while ginger beer is routinely made fresh in Jamaican homes. Western cuisine mostly employs ginger in sweet foods like gingerbread, biscuits, cakes, and ginger ale. In Japan and other places, pickled ginger is eaten between courses to clear the palate.
Here are a few unique ways to enjoy fresh ginger:
- Add a teaspoon full of fresh, grated ginger to a jug of lemonade and cool off. You can just chew on the small bits if you can tolerate the heat!
- Sprinkle half a teaspoon on top of rice for an exotic flavour and aroma.
- Perk up sautéed veggies by topping them off with fresh minced ginger.
- Add half a teaspoon of grated ginger to olive oil and garlic and dress up a salad for the perfect lunch treat.
- Grated ginger goes really well with the stuffing for baked apples.
- Fresh young ginger can be sliced and sprinkled into a salad. The more the quantity of the ginger in the salad the more spicy it becomes.
Ginger is packed with health promoting substances, and it is not necessary to use it in large quantities in order to get the full benefits. For example, ginger tea made with a couple of half inch slices, allowed to steep in a cup of hot water, is all that is required to settle an upset stomach. Arthritis patients have found relief consuming only a quarter inch slice of fresh ginger cooked in food. The majority of clinical trials use just 250 mg doses of ginger, three or four times a day.
Historical Health Benefits of Ginger
Ginger has been used for a long time in traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine in India. It is attributed with aphrodisiac properties according to the Karma Sutra, while employed in the Melanesian Islands to gain affection of the opposite sex. It is also a known diaphoretic, meaning it causes sweating. According to historical records, Henry VIII commanded that the spice should be used as plague medicine due to its diaphoretic properties. However, it is best known as a digestive aid. By the increased production of saliva and digestive fluids, it alleviates indigestion, diarrhoea, cramps, and pains caused by gas.
The rhizome is also well known for its anti-inflammatory characteristics. It aids by easing pain and reducing inflammation linked to arthritis, muscle spasms, and rheumatism. Its healing powers stimulate blood circulation, cleanse kidneys, remove toxins, and nourish the skin. Other curative uses include the treatment of respiratory conditions like asthma, and bronchitis, cut down on motion and morning sickness, treating nausea, and helping to break fevers by increasing perspiration.
Active ingredients responsible for its curative properties include gingerols, oleoresins, bisabolenel, zingibain, starch, essential oils like zingiberene, zingiberole, camphene, cineol, and borneol. The best thing about ginger is that there are hardly any side effects linked to it when taken in limited doses. Most frequently reported effects include bloating, heartburn, gas, and nausea, although these are usually linked with powdered ginger and not fresh.
Recently ginger has attracted the attention of a lot of scientists. Clinical research is being carried out on the large variety of probable health benefits of the spice. A clinical research article published on January 4th, 2006, at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center website, has shown that ginger has a lot of medicinal promise. Family medicine research investigator, Suzanna Zick, N.D., MPH, at the University of Michigan Health System, claims that use of ginger for ailments of the digestive tract and some types of arthritis has been promising1.
Initial studies carried out at the Maryland Medical Center imply that ginger may also be beneficial in helping to lower cholesterol and act as a blood thinning agent. In the controlled environment of a lab, studies indicate that the constituents of ginger possibly have anti-cancer properties. The American Cancer Society recognizes these medicinal properties of ginger, and recommends that it can be used as a medicine with caution. This is because it can extend bleeding when taken in combination with the typical blood thinning or clot preventing medicines. Even pregnant women with placental or other types of bleeding are asked by health care professionals to avoid using ginger during pregnancies.
Ginger has also been valued for its anti-inflammatory properties for centuries. It is, however, only over the past two and half decades that scientific proof has supplemented the belief that it contains anti-inflammatory constituents. It is due to these anti-inflammatory components called gingerols, that people with osteoarthritis experience less pain and have greater mobility with regular use of ginger. Studies published in Life Sciences issue of November 2003 supports this, while a second study published in Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine in February 2005, show the mechanisms responsible for ginger’s anti-inflammatory usefulness.
Ginger’s sweat promoting properties are beneficial for treating colds and flu. Besides detoxifying, sweat contains germ-fighting agents that help to combat infections, according to German researchers. Dermicidin is the protein produced in the body’s sweat glands, and transported to the skin with sweat, where it fights harmful bacteria like E. coli and staphylococcus aureus (responsible for skin infections), and fungi like Candida albicans.
Nutritional Value of Ginger
Ginger is free of cholesterol and low in calories. It is also an excellent source of vitamins and other micronutrients. It contains foliates, niacin, pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), Pyridoxine (vitamin B6), vitamins A, C, E, and K. Additionally it is rich in electrolytes like sodium and potassium and minerals like calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus and Zinc. Finally, it is a source of dietary fibre, carbohydrates and protein.