The History of Ginger (and Other Interesting Facts)

Ginger is as old as recorded history of man. It's a plant from tropical and subtropical regions that is grown for its gnarled and bumpy root. Most ginger comes from Jamaica, followed by India, Africa and China. Its name comes from the Sanskrit word for "horn root," referring to its knobby appearance. Ginger ranges in color from pale greenish yellow to ivory. The flavor is peppery and slightly sweet, while the aroma is pungent and spicy. It is a mainstay in Asian and Indian cooking. Ginger is used fresh, as well as dried for a flavoring and condiment.

For nearly 2,500 years, Ginger has played an important role in Asian medicine as a folk remedy to promote cleansing of the body through perspiration, to calm nausea and stimulate the appetite. Ginger tea was also used as a digestive agent and in the treatment of colds.

The Chinese consider ginger a yang, or hot food, which balances the cooling yin food to create harmony. Chinese sailors chewed on Ginger Root to combat seasickness. They also considered the root to be an antidote to shellfish poisoning, explaining why it is found in so many seafood dishes.

The Greeks, after a large meal, wrapped bread around a piece of ginger, and ate it to ease indigestion. This gave rise to gingerbread.

In England, Ginger was added to beer, forerunner to ginger ale.

German health authorities have concluded that 2 to 4 grams of ginger daily, prevents motion sickness and is a digestive aid.

Asian countries and China use fresh ginger combined with garlic in cooking. In India, both dried and fresh ginger are used. In Western cooking, powdered ginger is often added to gingerbread, cookies, puddings and cakes.

In the eleventh century, pilgrims and soldiers returned home from the Crusades and introduced ginger to the Europeans. Almost instantly, the English created a therapeutic ginger candy. Two hundered years later, bread crumbs were added to the mixture and gingerbread was born.

Europe has used ginger for centuries. In some places, it was a soft, delicately spiced cake; in other areas, it was a crisp, flat cookie; and in other places, it was a steamy, dark bread served in squares with lemon sauce or whipped cream. Gingerbread was first made out of breadcrumbs, honey and spices. Gradually, molasses and flour replaced the honey and breadcrumbs, making a dark, rich gingerbread.

The popularity of ginger increased in the Middle Ages, Medieval ladies presented gingerbread cakes (often painted with colored sugars) to their favored knights.

During the fourteenth century, it was possible to find recipes for pastry castles complete with four corner towers. It is believed that the creation of structural gingerbread (dough that is baked so that it is sturdy enough to be used as support members) came into use in the eighteenth century.

People became more home oriented, in the Victorian era, and life turned away from the streets, markets and fairs. Gingerbread houses became more popular. It is felt that people were inspired by the German fairy tale "Hansel and Gretel" and began baking gingerbread houses decorated with candies, like the house Hansel and Gretel found when they were lost in the woods.

In Germany, it was traditional to build a house and wait until New Year's Day when the children of the house take small mallets to break the gingerbread house apart. The pieces are eaten to usher in the new year.

American recipes usually call for fewer spices than the European recipes, and often were made of ingredients available regionally. Maple syrup gingerbreads were made in New England, and molasses was used in the South. Each wave of new immigrants added their own recipes and now gingerbread can be flavored, shaped and decorated as you like it.

"An I had but one penny in the world, thou should'st have it to buy ginger-bread."
--William Shakespeare

Uses and preparation:

  • Trim, then peel as needed
  • Grate, slice or chop as called for in recipe
  • Chop finely and saute with garlic as a flavor base for oriental stir-fry
  • Use to flavor marinades for pork, chicken or beef
  • Use slices to flavor cooking liquid for soups and stews, discarding when dish is served.
  • Steep slices in boiling water for tea, then add sugar
  • Powdered ginger mixed with small amount salt is excellent for brushing teeth and helps in strengthning gums and preventing bad breath.
  • Purchase ginger root that has a firm smooth skin.
  • Ginger can be wrapped in paper towels and plastic wrap and stored in refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
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