Until recently, ginger was the only pungent rhizome commonly used in the Western kitchen and even that was only used sparingly. Now we have a plethora of alternatives - wasabi, galangal and others - but ginger still has a very special place in our cuisine.
Ginger flower and leaves
Ginger probably originates from Southern China. Today it is widely cultivated across tropical and subtropical Asia (50% of the world's harvest is produced in India), in Brazil, Jamaica (whence the best quality is exported) and Nigeria, whose ginger is rather pungent, but lacks the fine aroma of other provenances.
The large, fleshy rhizome "gingerroot". This has a characteristic staghorn-like appearance in the fresh state. Dried ginger is usually sold in form of a very light brown powder. Ginger leaves are occasionally used for flavouring in countries in which ginger is indigenous.
Zingiberaceae (ginger family).
Refreshing, citrus smell similar to lemon myrtle, with a pungent, warm taste.
Most names of ginger in European languages (German ingwer, English "ginger", French gingembre, Italian zenzero) can be traced back to the Latin botanical genus name zingiber, which was in turn a loan from the Greek zingiberis. This Ancient Greek name accurately represents the name of ginger in contemporary Indic languages (e.g. Pali singivera) and the corresponding Sanskrit form is shringavera. These Indic names used to be explained to mean "shaped like a deer's antler or horn", but they are now thought to be loaned from a Dravidian tongue of South India, where the root inci still denotes ginger as in Malayalam inchi "ginger" or Tamil inji-ver "ginger-root".
The initial "g" in most of the European names of ginger is due to a Latin form gingiber, which is the progenitor of today's European names. The "g" was lost in German ingber, Polish imbir, Russian imbir and Ukrainian imbyr. Some Central European languages have an initial palatal sound dy in their name of ginger (Croatian đumbir, Slovak ďumbier and Hungarian gyömbér).
English "ginger" (Middle English gingifer, Old English gingivere) originates from Old French gingivie, which is also the source of Modern French gingembre. The Arabic zanjabil and Hebrew sangvil are also derived from the Indic names. From Arabic, the word was transferred to Persian zanjabil, Kurdish zanjafil, Georgian janjapili, Amharic zinjibil and Turkish zencefil. In the days of the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish name spread further reaching SE Europe, e.g. Albanian xhenxhefil and Bulgarian dzhindzhifil.
Despite the fact that the names of ginger in modern European tongues derive from Old Greek zingiberis almost without exception, the modern Greek name is not related. Instead, Greek piperoriza is simply a descriptive compound name "pepperroot", referring to the pungent peppery taste. Confusingly, "pepper-root" is a name in many Scandinavian languages for horseradish.
The original Sanskrit term shringavera has left no trace in contemporary North Indian languages. Instead, modern names of ginger derive from Sanskrit words ardraka "fresh ginger" and sunthi "dried ginger". Descendants of these terms include Hindi and Punjabi adrak, Gujarati adu, Bengali ada and Tami ellam.
The Bulgarian name isiot is a Turkish loan from isi "hot" and ot "grass", a name related to the use of ginger in making salep, a hot beverage prepared from orchis roots and spices. In other Southern Slavonic languages the same name refers both to ginger and also other aromatic rhizomes such as zedoary.
The species name officinale refers to a "drug", "medicine" or "plant".
Ginger is among the world’s most important and valued spices. The plant grows in tropical regions across the globe and plays a major role in a great many cuisines. It is less common in Europe (although an important spice in Roman times) but fresh ginger is now readily available in Western countries.
Many people like raw ginger and this is the form most popular in South-East Asia, where fresh ginger (green ginger) is grated or finely chopped, soaked in water for several hours and then added to the dish not long before serving. This form of usage results in a fresh, spicy and pungent taste.
If fresh ginger is cooked it increases in pungency but decreases in freshness. Thais add curry pastes made from grated ginger and other ingredients to their creamy coconut milk curries and Indonesians frequently use spice pastes based on fresh chillies and ginger to rub meat before grilling or baking. Ginger tea, made by cooking slices of fresh ginger for a few minutes, is a spicy drink enjoyed both in hot climates (Indonesia) and in the cold Himalayas (Sikkim).
Fried ginger (preferred in India and Sri Lanka) has a quite different flavour. If chopped ginger is fried (typically together with garlic or onion), the hot and spicy taste gives way to a mild, rich flavour. North Indian recipes make much use of this technique as the basis for delicious sauces to vegetable or meat dishes.
In Chinese cookery, fresh ginger is used both boiled and fried. Food that needs a long simmering time is often flavoured with slices of ginger because the slices release their flavour quite slowly. On the other hand, stir-fries (chow) in which the food is cooked rapidly in very hot oil with constant stirring, require finely cut or even grated ginger. A well-known recipe of this kind is gong bao, in which meat pieces previously marinated in soy sauce and rice wine are stir-fried in chilli-flavoured oil together with a good amount of ginger and some garlic and peanuts. With its liberal usage of chillies and fresh ginger, gong bao very well illustrates the cuisine of Sichuan, China's most spicy cooking style.
Ginger also has a place in the cuisine of Japan, where it is only used in small quantities. Chicken is flavoured by rubbing it with juice obtained by squeezing fresh ginger rhizome and pickled ginger. Beni shōga, which owes its reddish-pink colour to perilla leaves, is prepared from very young ginger rhizomes and often served with sushi.
Ginger is grown as a cash crop in Africa and Latin America and has entered many local cuisines. Some recipes for Jamaican jerk paste use ginger, which is not surprising since Jamaica's ginger is of extraordinary quality.
Ginger ale is a soft drink that enjoys considerable popularity in the US. Like root beer, it is not a fermented ale but a combination of sugar, plant extract and carbonated water. Although ginger is not used in the fermentation of beer in present times, it was used for this purpose during the last centuries of the Middle Ages, often in combination with gale.
Dried ginger tastes different from fresh ginger and cannot act as a substitute. Dried ginger is an optional component of curry powder, Chinese five spice and Ethiopian berbere. Dried ginger is not frequently used in regions where fresh ginger is available but has found some applications in Europe for spicy crackers and to enhance the taste of gravies and soups. Dried ginger is generally out of fashion, but has been retained in the French spice mixture quatre épices, the origin of which can be found in baroque cooking.