Ginger (Zingiber officinale), not a root but the underground stem (rhizome) of a plant, gets its name from the Sanskrit stringa-vera, meaning "with a body like a horn," as in antlers. Confucius (551-479 B.C.) mentioned ginger in his writings and, named in the Koran, it was known in Arab lands as far back as 659 A.D. One of the earliest spices in Western Europe, introduced in the 9th century, ginger was so popular that it soon became a table staple, like salt and pepper. In England, barkeepers put out containers of ground ginger to sprinkle into beer – the original ginger ale! Queen Elizabeth I, a great lover of ginger, is credited as the inventor of the gingerbread man and often presented visiting dignitaries with one shaped in their likeness.
For thousands of years, traditional healers have used ginger to help calm that queasy feeling – nausea, a prominent symptom of many diseases. Ancient doctors also recognized ginger’s diaphoretic qualities, meaning causing one to sweat, which is why Henry VIII ordered its use as a plague medicine. Mentioned in the Kama Sutra, the spice has been ascribed aphrodisiac powers, while in some Asian countries it’s chewed to expel evil spirits.
Researchers today are seriously interested in ginger. It’s rich in phytonutrients, especially gingerols which have impressive antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, in short, anti-disease properties. By increasing digestive fluids and saliva, it helps relieve indigestion, gas pains, diarrhea, stomach cramping; it loosens and expels phlegm from the lungs to treat respiratory problems like asthma, bronchitis, etc. As an anti-dote to nausea related to motion or morning sickness, ginger’s been found more effective than many over-the-counter drugs. It also reduces pain and inflammation from arthritis, rheumatism, muscle spasms, stimulates blood circulation and is cleansing to the bowels and kidneys, while nourishing the skin.
Buying and Storage
The knobby buds – thumb-like protrusions – of a ginger stem (rhizome) are called "hands," and are available in most markets in a variety of forms: fresh whole, sliced, diced or preserved in brine, dried sliced, ground or crystallized.
When buying fresh, look for hands that are firm and swollen-looking, with smooth skin, color-wise a soft beige with a slight hint of pink and knobs tinged yellow-green. Fresh ginger produces the most intense flavor from the gingerols, though taste varies depending on where and how it was grown: from tangy, sweet, spicy to mild or hot. Jamaican ginger is mild and ideal for cooking, though some cooks prefer ginger from Nigeria or Sierra Leone which is the most pungent. In the U.S. most ginger comes from Hawaii, which is somewhere in the middle of mild to pungent.
Peeled, sealed and refrigerated, fresh ginger keeps about 2 weeks at peak flavor. But frozen in a freezer bag, it lasts indefinitely. Freeze it peeled and sliced; thaw before using. Or, you can slice or grate a piece of still frozen ginger. Keep unpeeled ginger in a cool, dry place, as you would onions and garlic.
Ground ginger lacks the rich aroma of fresh, but the typical flavor remains. Crystallized ginger is processed with sugar, but now, in most health food stores, cubed organic ginger with cane sugar can be found. To cut the sweetness, you can soak in water for an hour or so. Both ground and crystallized keep in a cool, dry place for up to a year.
Contraindications: Ginger is a blood thinner so, if you’re taking conventional blood thinner medication, don’t take medicinal doses of ginger. Also, pregnant women should avoid high supplemental dosage of ginger, as it can stimulate the uterus. Normal culinary use, however, should pose no problem.
Motion sickness. Ginger has been found to be as effective for prevention and treatment of motion sickness as many over-the-counter and prescription medications and without the significant side effects like dry mouth, lethargy, drowsiness. It seems that ginger limits the release of vasopressin, a key hormone that regulates levels of water, salt and blood sugar believed to play a role in nausea from motion sickness. Ginger also causes the blood vessels to dilate (warming effect) and blocks serotonin receptors in the stomach that cause nausea.
Morning sickness. Morning is the worst time for 50-80% of pregnant women during the 1st trimester. A team of researchers in Annals of Pharmocotherapy analyzed nearly 40 years of studies on ginger and concluded: "Ginger has been shown to improve the symptoms of nausea and vomiting compared with placebo in pregnant women." Fresh ginger (in food or as tea) is recommended or maximum supplemental dose: 250 mg. capsules with dried ginger 4 times daily for short periods (no more than 4 consecutive days).
Nausea after surgery. A daily dose of 1,000 mg ginger was found to reduce the likelihood of postoperative nausea and vomiting, as reported in American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Arthritis. Studies at the University of Miami confirm ginger’s significant anti- inflammatory ability to relieve pain and reduce inflammation in conditions like arthritis, rheumatism, muscle spasms, as reported in the journal Arthritis and Rheumatism.
Cancer. Dozens of studies have shown that ginger has anti-cancer activity, specificially in lung, breast, prostate, skin, bladder, kidney, pancreatic, colon and ovarian cancers. For instance, ginger extract was found to activate genes ("tumor suppressors") that lead to the death of human colon, kidney, breast and pancreatic cancer cells. Animal studies suggest that a ginger extract, zerumbone, could help prevent bone lose in breast cancer, a common problem, and might also be useful in osteoporosis. Another study found that zerumbone could "down-regulate" a gene that plays a role in metastasis, the spread of cancer beyond the initial site.
Migraine. Medications for migraines have serious side effects, so the Headache Care Center in Springfield, Missouri conducted a study to see if the herb feverfew and ginger would be effect. The results: "Two hours after treatment, 48% were pain-free, with 34% reporting a headache of only mild severity." Researchers reported that nearly 60% of those who took ginger and feverfew said they were satisfied and 41% felt the supplements were equal to medication.
Asthma. Researchers in the UK were concerned that drugs prescribed for asthma often produce "sub-optimal" results and have many short and long-term side effects, so they sought a non-drug approach. A natural formula with 130 mg ginger extract or a placebo was given to adults with mild to moderate asthma. After 3 months, those on the formula had more "clinical improvements" in symptoms, overall better health, less coughing than jthe control group.
Digestive distress. In Taiwan research, ginger was found to speed digestion in the stomach by increasing the production of digestive fluids and saliva. The stomachs of those taking 1,200 mg ginger were emptied in half the time as those on a placebo, thus, lessening the chance of heartburn, as well as bloating, belching, flatulence, diarrhea, cramping. Ginger also improved the appetite of those with loss of appetite due to chemotherapy or post surgery.
Cholesterol problems. A study of people with high "bad" LDL cholesterol, high total cholesterol, high triglycerides and low "good" HDL cholesterol was divided into 2 groups: 1 group took 1,000 mg. ginger 3 times a day; the other, a placebo. After 45 days, the ginger group had a significant drop in LDL and increased HDL compared to the placebo group.
Heart attacks and stroke. Studies have shown that ginger is a blood thinner, decreasing platelet aggregation – clumping of blood components that can trigger artery-clogging blood clots that cause most heart attacks and strokes.
Sexual activity. Ginger’s alluring fragrance and ability to increase blood circulation maybe responsible for its long reputation as an aphrodisiac.
In the Kitchen
Ginger is integral to the cuisines of India, China, Korea, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam – primarily in savory dishes, as in the way Americans rely on garlic and onions. The Japanese love their shoga, grated fresh ginger, or gari, a pickled version, which aids digestion and warms the body after eating cold dishes like sushi. In Yeman, ginger is added to coffee. In the West, the spice is most commonly found in desserts, jams and drinks, like ginger ale and tea.
Ginger is a jack-of-all trades in the kitchen – good in almost anything! Keep in mind that fresh and dried (ground) differ in intensity and flavor. They can be interchanged, but dried is not as intense. Today the accent is on fresh. Peel ginger with a paring knife or vegetable peeler, then slice or grate to add in cooking. Fresh ginger has a strong flavor, but it mellows in cooking.
Here are some ways to use ginger in your cooking:
- Fresh ginger is great with fish. Add grated ginger and dried mint to melted butter to serve as a dipping sauce.
- Sprinkle grated ginger and a little honey or maple syrup on acorn squash or sweet potatoes before baking.
- Rub into meat before cooking to tenderize and add flavor. Let sit a few hours or overnight in the ‘fridge before cooking.
- Ginger works well in white sauces and dessert sauces or syrups.
- Sprinkle ground in applesauce or use it in fruit pie fillings.
- Grate fresh into cheesecake batter.
- Finely chop crystallized ginger and sprinkle atop whipped cream or ice cream. Or, just toss some small chunks into yogurt for a delicious snack and tummy pick-me-up.
- Make ginger syrup: 1/4 pound peeled, diced ginger with 1/2 cup honey and 1 cup water. Bring to a boil, then simmer 30 minutes. Strain and cool.
- Ginger rice: Cook brown basmati rice. When done, quickly stir in finely chopped garlic, ginger, green chillies and fresh cilantro leaves – a burst of flavor and fragrance that will dazzle your senses!
- Ginger spiked juice: peel a piece of fresh ginger and put through your juicer, along with carrots, a stalk or two of celery and an apple.
Grow Your Own Ginger
Here’s the best way to always have fresh ginger at your fingertips:
Take fresh ginger and break off a piece at least 2 inches long. Place it in a pot filled with sandy soil, such as cactus soil. Water occasionally to keep it slightly moistened. The root will start to grow in 4 -5 weeks. After a few months of growing, it should be available for use. So, whenever you need ginger, just dig up the root and break off a small portion. Replant and the root will continue to grow.
The Encyclopedia of Spices
Healing Spices by Bharat Aggarwal, PhD (Sterling Publishing)