The Joy of Ginger: Pungent Spice Brings Hot Medicine to Western Kitchens

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My grandmother gave us ginger tea as a cold and ‘flu remedy, saying that it helped the body work up a sweat, which in turn broke a cold

When I was a kid my favorite cookies were grandma’s homemade gingersnaps which grandpa and I couldn’t resist dunking in our afternoon tea. Other than the delightfully crisp cookies ,or an occasional batch of non-alcoholic homemade ginger beer and a cup of curative brew, the world of ginger – to me – was a small one. I knew it as nothing more than a pinch of golden spice that came out of an earthen jar off grandmother’s spice rack, or a small piece of pungent-smelling root that could always be found in the bottom of her icebox. It was, she said, “very dear”, meaning both costly and cherished.

Today I appreciate ginger on a larger scale and use it in more ways than I can count. In my kitchen, ginger is a number one staple that finds its way into everything from healthy suppers to zippy desserts. Of course, I still use ginger in grandma’s handed-down recipes but also indulge in it much more liberally than she did. Thanks to modern day supermarkets and growing consumer demand, exotic things like ginger are easier to come by and more reasonably priced than they were back in grandma’s time.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is a creeping, perennial plant native to West Indies, South Asia, India, and China and cultivated throughout tropical parts of the world. The thick rootstocks or rhizomes, which grow underground, are often likened to a ‘hand’ because they shoot out into tuberous joints resembling chubby tanned fingers. The pungent rhizome has been used both as a spice and a medicine since ancient times, especially in traditional Oriental cooking and Chinese medicines.

The name ‘ginger’ is derived from Zanzibar from whence it was first imported to Europe in the 15th century. Ginger was an important trade item between Europe and the Orient during the Middle Ages. Although the root was well-known in ancient Rome, it nearly disappeared during the fall of the Roman Empire. The great explorer Marco Polo is credited with re-introducing ginger to Europe upon returning from his adventures in the Far East. In olden days in England a pound of ground ginger was worth a prized sheep, and history claims it was the British who created gingerbread. Today, the largest importer of ginger is Great Britain, followed by North America and Arab countries.

Most of the ginger grown today is used in kitchens across the world to add zest to all types of dishes. It can be purchased in numerous forms including whole root which is fresh ripe ginger with pale, yellow flesh and skin that is tan to brown. Or you can buy whole green roots that are collected and shipped while still immature. These have light green outer skins and are usually found in markets that specialize in Oriental cooking supplies. Ginger can be purchased as dried roots called “black” when skin is left on, and “white” when peeled. Pickled ginger, known in Japan as gari, is growing in popularity and often associated with sushi. Both preserved and crystallized ginger are gaining recognition as great pantry staples. Ground ginger, the fragrant golden powder found on any well-stocked spice rack is known by every good cook.

Among herbalists, ginger is one of the most useful kitchen remedies. For ages it has been reputed as number one treatment for motion sickness. I can vouch that a cup of ginger tea, or in an emergency, a glass of ginger ale, prevents nausea and queasy stomach. I often sip a cup of ginger tea before hitting the road and the natural remedy works wonders at reducing travel sickness. It’s also good for nervous stomach and edginess.

Ongoing studies have indicated that ginger is beneficial to good health, relieving everything from morning sickness to helping reduce cholesterol. It is reputed that ginger balances stomach acid thus eliminating heartburn and indigestion. At tables in high society, especially in New England, it was common practice to pass around a bowl of fresh ginger slices after dinner to counteract bloating from overeating and to reduce stomach gas.

Grandmother administered ginger tea as cold and flu treatment, saying that it helped the body work up a sweat which in turn, broke a cold. I still sip a cup of ginger tea for cold and sinus problems as it not only breaks up congestion, but leaves the body feeling warm and tension-free.

Ginger tea is also soothing treatment for sore throat and if you don’t have time for sipping, try sucking on a thin slice of fresh ginger to help rid rasp. Candied ginger also works and is handy for toting to work. It not only eases sore throat, but freshens the mouth during the day when brushing after eating is inconvenient. Sucking on a slice of ginger relieves toothache, and I remember as a kid being thankful that grandma had a stash when I was struck with a nasty throb.

Ginger Poultices, Infusions – A Warming External Remedy

Arthritis and rheumatism pain can be relieved by using on the warming powers of ginger. Grandma’s old remedy for “heat rub” calls for a couple of thin slices of ginger along with a pinch of spice to be heated in olive oil. When the oil is cool enough to apply, it is rubbed onto affected area then bound in cloth to hold heat in. Grandpa used this remedy when his knees pained in damp weather and swore that it brought relief.

A number of years ago I sprained my ankle and found that a compress of ginger relieved the pain and helped reduce swelling. To make a compress, grate a spoon or two of root and simmer in a cup of boiled water until volatile oils are released. When cool, pour on a piece of flannelette and apply.

An old cure for athlete’s foot calls for a good soaking in ginger infusion which has the ability to kill fungus. This also offers cooling relief for blisters and other foot discomforts. For foot bath, grate two to four tablespoons ginger and steep in enough boiling water to cover feet in basin. When cool enough to stand, submerge feet. I always save ginger peelings to use in such infusions and whenever I come across a bag of ‘expired’ ginger on the produce clearance shelf, I snap it up at a discount and save for such purposes. It might not be at its prime for tickling taste buds but still works wonders at soothing and easing pain and for this purpose, can be frozen for future use.

Warming ginger tea with lemon and mint

Natural Curative – Used Internally

It is said that ginger is a powerful antioxidant, helping to cleanse the body of impurities. Reports have indicated that ginger may help reduce formation of blood clots by thinning blood. In traditional medicines ginger has found its way into treatments for chronic bronchitis, menstrual pain, muscle spasms, depression, colic, cystic fibrosis, diarrhea, dropsy, fever, gallbladder disorders and a host of other ailments. Ginger goes way back in history as a natural curative and it is predicted that the future of ginger in the world of medicine is bright.

The most sensible advice I ever got about ginger came from a dear old Chinese friend who operated a little Oriental food market I used to frequent. Healthy and sprite at nearly a 100 years old, Mr. Ming always said with a twinkle in his eye and knowledge old as the hills, “Eat ginger ‘cause it tastes good and forget about all the good things it does for your body. Good medicine not suppose to taste good.”

So, indulge in ginger because it tastes good and don’t go taking the fun out of it by dwelling on the fact that it’s good for you. Below are a few of my favourite recipes.

Good for Everything Ginger Tea

Put 1 tablespoon (more or less to taste) peeled grated ginger root per cup of water into a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer 5 minutes. Strain into teacups. Serve with honey, if you wish. I serve this tea hot in wintertime to rid chilblains and iced in summertime as a refreshing thirst quencher. For cold, flu and sinus problems, use more ginger and add a generous pinch of cayenne to the tea. For a quickie cup — put 1 tablespoon grated ginger into tea infuser or what grandma called a “tea ball” and dangle into small teapot of boiling water. Steep until desired strength is reached.

Ginger Milk

When you can’t sleep, try sipping a cup of ginger milk. It makes a very relaxing bedtime drink. Grate 1 teaspoon (more or less to taste) peeled ginger and put in small saucepan. Add 1 cup of milk and heat to almost boiling. Remove from heat and cover. Let infuse several minutes. Strain. Sweeten with honey, if you wish.

Ginger Chocolate Warmer-Upper

Next time you’re heating milk for a batch of hot chocolate to warm up your winter hiking, skiing and sledding partners, try grating a spoonful of peeled ginger root per cup (as above) into the hot milk. Strain before adding the cocoa and you’ve got a satisfying drink that’ll warm their hearts and souls. A marshmallow and bit of grated nutmeg on top and you’ve got a grand finale to wintertime fun.

Ginger Fridge-Clean Soup

Here’s a versatile, super quick soup that my family fondly calls “Fridge Clean Soup”. Put 4 cups of water in saucepan. Add 2 tablespoons (more or less to suit taste) peeled grated ginger, 3 tablespoons soy sauce, 1 tablespoon miso (if you don’t have miso use extra spoonful of soy sauce), 1 teaspoon sesame oil, seasoned salt and pepper to taste. Taste and adjust seasoning. You can add more soy, ginger, spice or water. To this soup base add lots or little of any or all of the following items cut into small enough pieces to fit into a spoon: green pepper, cauliflower, broccoli, carrot, snow peas, green peas, cabbage, celery, mushrooms, green onions, leftover cooked seafood, meat or rice, or anything else that’s suitable for the soup pot. Simmer 2 minutes. (Do not let veggies loose firmness). Serve in big mugs. Add crusty bun and call it supper after a day on the slopes.

Grandma’s Old-Fashioned Homemade Ginger Beer

This non-alcoholic drink has a pleasing amount of fizz to it.  Makes about a gallon. In gallon jug, combine grated rind of 1 lemon, 2 cups sugar, 3/4 cup grated ginger which has been put in a baggie and bruised with a mallet to release flavour, and 1 tablespoon cream of tartar. Cover (about 3 inches from rim) with boiling water. Mix well. Allow to stand until slightly warm. Mix 1 packet of fast rising yeast with 1 tablespoon sugar. Sprinkle over contents in jug. Cover with cloth and let stand in draft-free place for a day or until yeast has stopped frothing. Strain and add 3 tablespoons lemon juice (saved after grating rind). Put back into clean jug. Cap and store in refrigerator or cool place. Serve over ice. Saves well for about a week.

Modern Day Fresh Homemade Gingerale

This is an updated version of homemade ginger pop. Refreshing, light and pleasing. Put 2 cups water in saucepan along with 1 cup honey and 4 tablespoons peeled grated ginger. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer 8 minutes. Turn off heat, cover and let steep until cool. Strain into pitcher. Stir in juice of l lemon. Add 3 cups of club soda. Taste. If too strong add more soda. If too weak, stir in a pinch of ground ginger.

Honeyed Ginger

Grandma made honey ginger when her ginger root was about to expire its shelf life. When you find a little piece of root in the bottom of the fridge that’s shriveled with old age, here’s a way put it to good use. Peel, and using sharp knife, cut into very thin slices. Heat 1 cup or more of liquid honey in small saucepan over low heat. Add ginger and stir constantly for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat, cover and allow to cool. When cool, taste. If not enough ginger flavour add a pinch or two of spice. If too gingery, add more honey. Poor into honey pot and enjoy. This spiced honey is wonderful in tea, on toast, as glaze for carrots or other vegetables and for drizzling on porridge.

Guidelines for Buying Ginger

For cooking purposes, shop for ginger that is plump and has smooth, firm skin. Don’t choose pieces of root with lots of ‘broken’ fingers with exposed flesh. Bigger pieces of root are usually in better condition than smaller pieces as there will be less chance of exposed flesh. Avoid dehydrated pieces with shriveled skin. For medicinal purposes, you can buy off the produce ‘clearance’ shelf when available and freeze if necessary for safekeeping. Store ginger in vegetable crisper. I keep mine in a zip-lock bag to help maintain freshness. Some say it keeps for 3 weeks, but grandma often had it in her crisper for months at a time. I take ginger with me in the summertime on camping trips and have had it save up to two weeks on my camper pantry shelf. Even when starting to shrivel, it still makes a darn good cup of tea.

Linda Gabris is an avid cook who enjoys sharing her grandmother’s old recipes and medicinal preparations as they were recorded in the handwritten journals passed down to her. Linda also enjoys gardening and foraging for edible wild foods. Over the years, she has taught cooking courses in Prince George, B.C., with a focus on healthy eating, food preparation, and International cuisine.

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