Origin and names
Ginger is the name of the spice that is derived from the root of the plant Zingiber officinale. The name ginger is derived from the Old English gingifer which in turn is thought to have come from the ancient sanskrit word srngaveram meaning antler in reference to the way the root branches like an antler. Ginger has been used as both a flavorant and a folk medicine for thousands of years.
Ginger has been cultivated for so long that no wild populations remain, all ginger today descends from farmed ginger. It is first thought to have originated in the islands of South-East Asia and Oceania after which the indigenous maritime nomads and traders brought it north towards mainland Asia.
One of the earliest written records of ginger comes from China in the 4th century BC where Confucius was said to have eaten it with every meal. Much like how limes and lemons were carried on ships to prevent scurvy, so too was ginger by Chinese merchants.
Ginger is thought to be one of the first spices to have been traded in the ancient world where its culinary and medicinal qualities made it in high demand. Arabian traders first brought ginger to the Mediterranean and it soon proliferated across Europe as a highly sought after ingredient.
Geography and cultivation
The ginger plant is a small herbaceous perennial which grows up to a meter tall. It’s thick rhizomes are harvested and immediately scraped or scalded to remove any sprouting rootlets. The whole ginger root can be used fresh, being minced or grated into a meal, or it can be dried and ground to a very fine powder. Ground ginger has a different aroma and flavour profile from fresh as the drying process changes the chemical composition of the flavour oils.
Today India is the largest producer of ginger in the world, producing over 30% of the global crop.
Food and other uses
The sweet and warming flavour of ginger has made it an essential ingredient in baking, combined with cinnamon and nutmeg it is part of the essential Christmas spices which bring festive flavour to many wintertime desserts and biscuits. Thinly sliced, pickled ginger is commonly served with sushi as a palate cleanser. In Asia ginger is a common ingredient in savoury dishes where it provides a sweet, earthy warmth as opposed to the fruitier and more citric chillies and peppers. This pungency helps to balance some of the fishy dishes which are particularly popular in many coastal asian countries. Ginger is also used to flavour a number of beverages such as ginger beer and as a component in chai tea blends.