“He was never without ginger when he ate. He did not eat much,” The Analects says of Confucius’ diet.
What is it that’s so compelling about ginger? For a spice that can bring such pep and energy to food and drink, this pantry essential is a stallion in sage’s clothing.
“It’s probably the only thing my grandmother’s kitchen has in common with yours,” offers a friend. She’s probably right. Though it’s native to India and China, everyone (and their grandmother) seems to have a home remedy involving ginger. Though some find its soapy astringency intolerable, a yen for ginger can tend toward the fanatical, as my friend’s young son did prove, soap bubbles popping from the corners of his mouth after he confessed to a secret taste of Burt’s Bees Citrus & Ginger Root Body Wash straight from the bottle. “It smelled better than it tasted,” he concluded gaily as we waited for the doctor to arrive.
“What does a monkey know about the taste of ginger?” goes the Hindi proverb.
Ginger’s flavor profile adds a distinctive dimension to food but, widely accepted for its efficacy as a folk remedy, particularly in warming tonics such as ginger water, tisane or ginger beer, ginger is used to treat a whole host of ailments, nausea and digestive distress being the most common. Speaking of folk, if there’s any truth to the folklore about redheads, also known as “gingers,” being inclined to the fieriest of temperaments, I’ll eat my shortbread.
Ginger was a hit or miss thing with me until I read the bit in Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park that describes Maria Sanchez, a local Costa Rican woman, who serves a signature ginger ice cream created from native island herbs. I was determined to find ginger ice cream as delicious as the book had made it sound.
Unfortunately, my first encounter with the stuff fell short of my hopes, studded as it was with glassy amber cuboids of candied ginger, also known as stem ginger in syrup. I braved through it, moving gingerly until I could no longer take it. Later, when I decided to start making my own ice cream, ginger was one of the first flavors I tackled, carefully grating lots of juicy ginger with a Microplane into the cream and then straining my custard base before churning. It was superb, with a hot backbone of citrus and spice that brought new life to the placid background notes of milk and cream.
A Chinese proverb goes, “The older the ginger, the more it bites.” The age of ginger can be determined by what I call its bark and its bite, otherwise known as its appearance, weight and scent.
On the topic of his beloved ginger, British chef and food writer Nigel Slater writes, “I bought a fat hand of it yesterday—pale ivory-beige, a gentle undulating root with thin, tight skin and fat, gentle curves. A piece of edible sculpture.” His recipe for pumpkin with ginger, coconut milk and lime is one of the finest uses for ginger that I know, and can be easily procured via nigelslater.com.
Ginger can be had both young and old; it’s the silvery pink-tipped ballet slippers of ginger that you’ll eat in the gari that arrives with your sashimi, but it’s the warm and weathered tobacco-skinned ginger that springs to mind for medicinal uses and pungent marinades.
The best quick pie crust I know materializes within moments with the help of some gingersnaps (I like Snappy Ginger Cookies, $8.99 per pound at Whole Foods), ground toasted pecans, melted butter, sea salt and a little maple syrup or stem ginger syrup for moistening. There’s nothing meticulous about what follows: pulverization in a food processor or an unceremonious bashing in Ziploc freezer bags with an empty wine bottle.
Ginger ale originated in 19th century England, when barkeepers set out ground ginger for patrons to sprinkle into their beer. Nowadays, a spicy ginger beer is preferred in cocktails, with Reed’s topping the charts in terms of being both easy to find and mighty fine ($4.99 for a four-pack, Whole Foods).
Thinking about ginger kind of gives new meaning to a gin and tonic. Just make sure to keep the ginger tea simmering on the back burner.