Sir Toby Belch: Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?
Clown: Yes, by Saint Anne, and ginger shall be hot i’ the mouth too.
Twelfth Night. Act ii. Sc. 3.
If anyone ever makes a movie about ginger’s long and fascinating history, I want Leonardo DiCaprio to play the lead. Imagine him sporting a multi-colored pair of hose, leaping from bow to stern on a flimsy wooden caravel …
Anyway, Shakespeare described ginger (Zingiber officinale) as being “hot in the mouth.” Confucius dictated rules about cutting it. No poets have praised it, yet.
In ancient Bengal, in a time out of mind, people discovered a hot spicy yellow root – related to turmeric and galangal – and called it sringavera, meaning “horned root” in Sanskrit. Ginger, a rhizome plant almost twin to bamboo and easy to grow, quickly spread throughout Asia. The Chinese and Japanese soon learned to pair ginger with fish, because ginger eliminated fishy odors. As a cure for seasickness, ginger had no equal and early Chinese sailors swore by it.
By 100 AD, the Romans and Greeks used ginger in huge quantities in their cooking. Homesick Roman legionnaires camped in Britannia and Gaul demanded ginger (and got it) to spice up their less-than-fresh food. Thus, ginger took hold in Europe, where it dominated the art of cooking throughout the Middle Ages.
During the Age of Discovery, sailors on long voyages, like the Chinese, chewed ginger to combat seasickness. English cooks made the “ginger pills” more palatable for the sailors by baking cookies and cakes flavored with ginger. Ginger became so ingrained in English cooking that cooks laced traditional English Christmas Eve carp heavily with ginger. So important was ginger for the English palate that special containers sat on the dining table, alongside salt and pepper shakers. English settlers bound for the New World carried ginger in their luggage and that is how ginger first came to America.
Tingly yellow ginger imparts a certain pep and prance to gingerbread boys and bestows the snap in gingersnaps.
Ginger turned up in many English recipe books during the period of the Renaissance. A Book of Cookyre Very Necessary for all such as delight therein, Gathered by A.W. (1591) includes a number of ginger-studded recipes for poultry, as indicated by the following offering:
To bake Chickins.
Season them with cloves, mace, sinamon ginger, and some pepper, so put them into your coffin, and put therto corance dates Prunes, and sweet Butter, or els Marow, and when they be halfe baked, put in some sirup of vergious, and some sugar, shake them togither and set them into the oven again.
Bake Sparowes, Larkes, or any kinde of small birds, calves feet or sheepes tunges after the same manner.
Here’s another example, from the 1691 A New Booke of Cookerie:
To smoore an old Coney, Ducke, or Mallard, on the French fashion.
PArboyle any of these, and halfe roast it, launch them downe the breastwith your Knife, and sticke them with two or three Cloues. Then put them into a Pipkin with halfe a pound of sweet Butter, a little white Wine Uergis, a piece of whole Mace, a little beaten Ginger, and Pepper.
Then mince two Onyons very small, with a piece of an Apple, so let them boyle leisurely, close couered, the space of two howers, turning them now and then. Serue them in vpon Sippets.
On the other side of the Atlantic, America’s Revolutionary war soldiers received rations of ginger, probably for the same reasons that Roman soldiers clamored for it. As the years went by, American housewives added ginger only to cakes, cookies, ice cream, and pumpkin pies. Ginger ale and ginger beer became popular. Christmas sweets hogged most of the ginger. And that’s still the case.
Not until hordes of other immigrants came to America did ginger begin to take on other cooking roles. Ginger teases the palate in Indian curries, Moroccan stews, and West African chicken and peanut sauces. Asian cooks re-introduced the idea of pairing ginger with fish and shellfish. Used gingerly, ginger indeed reduces the fishiness of fish.
For the modern cook, ginger appears widely in markets, available in both fresh and ground form.
Fresh ginger stores well in the fridge and in the freezer when wrapped in foil and bagged in plastic. Just cut off what you need and refreeze.
Store ground ginger, made from the dried root, in a glass jar in a cool dry dark place. Substitute ground ginger for fresh only when fresh cannot be found in any grocery store or Asian market. Use only one-fourth the amount of ground ginger for fresh ginger. When making curries or other dishes (see “Spiced Moroccan Shrimp” below) where directions call for the dried spices to be fried first, take care not to scorch the spices, as this will permeate the dish with a bitter flavor. Remove large pieces of fresh ginger from the finished dish or finely grate the ginger before cooking. Why? Biting into a large chunk of fresh ginger can be unpleasant, to put it mildly.
For no less an authority than the famous English herbalist, John Gerard, said, “It heateth in the third degree,” seconding Shakespeare’s adage: ginger indeed sits “hot in the mouth.”
Now about that movie, Mr. DiCaprio …
Some commercial motion-sickness preparations include potassium-rich ginger. Some things never change, do they?
SPICED MOROCCAN SHRIMP
4 garlic cloves, mashed
4-6 T. oil
1/4-1/2 t. salt
1 t. sweet paprika
1 t. cumin
1/2 t. ground ginger
1/8 t. cayenne pepper
1 lb. peeled shrimp
1/2 c. chopped parsley
Fry the garlic in the oil for 30 seconds over medium-high heat and add the spices. Fry for 15 seconds and then quickly add the shrimp. Stir shrimp until they turn pink and just begin to curl.
Toss in the parsley, stir briefly, and serve the shrimp with saffron rice.
FISH FILLETS SAUCED WITH GINGER
1 lb. fresh fish fillets, preferably red snapper, flounder, or mackerel
4 T. oil
Salt to taste
1 T. Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
2 scallions, chopped
1 clove garlic, mashed
2 T. finely grated fresh ginger
4 T. soy sauce
1 t. sugar
Heat 2 T. of the oil over high heat and quickly sear the fish on one side until fish is cooked through. Remove pan from the heat. Lightly salt the fish to taste. Place cooked fish seared side up on 2 warm plates in a warm oven.
Pour out any juices from the pan. Reserve. Wipe out the pan and return it to the heat. Add the remaining 2 T. of oil and the ginger. Cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Add the scallions and the garlic. Fry for 10 seconds Add the soy sauce and the reserved juices or 2 T. water. Stir in the sugar, cook for 15 seconds, and remove from the heat. Pour the sauce over the fish and serve immediately.
Cookbooks about Ginger or of Interest Because of Recipes Containing Ginger:
Ginger: Common Spice and Wonder Drug, by Doug Schulick (2001)
Spoonful of Ginger, by Nina Simonds (1999)
© 2008, 2010 C. Bertelsen