It is said that because he expected it to assure him a long life, Confucius, the Chinese philosopher, added this spice to every meal he ate. What is it? If you said ginger you are correct!
Ancient Hindu and Chinese cultures revered ginger for a multitude of supposed health benefits, including the ability to aid digestion, restore appetite, and cure everything from the common cold and nausea to leprosy and jaundice. Current research suggests that compounds present in ginger do indeed affect gastrointestinal function and may help ease nausea. Studies also indicate ginger may relieve muscle pain and pain associated with arthritis.
The ginger plant is a rhizome related to turmeric and cardamom and has been cultivated for thousands of years. It doesn’t grow in the wild but it is thought to have originated in Southeast Asia and from there spread to the rest of Asia and North Africa. By the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 it was highly coveted in England in its powdered form; the wealthy included it along with salt and pepper as an all-purpose seasoning on their dinner tables. The first Westerner on record as having seen a ginger plant was Marco Polo, in China. He described it on his return to Venice in the early 14th century. Seeking to circumvent an Arab monopoly on the spice trade, the Spanish began cultivating it in their Caribbean colonies in the 16th century, making it the first Asian spice to be grown in the new world for export to Europe.
In Asia ginger is used to flavor a wide variety of savory dishes. It’s a major ingredient in Chinese, Korean, and Indian cuisines. Although it’s also pickled, candied, and used in the powdered form to flavor tea and coffee, for the most part ginger is used as a fresh ingredient in these cuisines. Historically Middle Eastern and western cultures used the dried and ground form exclusively, probably due to the fact that this was the only way Arab traders could transport is so far over land and sea without it spoiling. Over time a preference developed and even after fresh ginger root became available, western cuisines continued to use the powdered form, adding it mostly to sweets like gingersnaps and gingerbread and using it to flavor drinks from coffee and tea to beer and wine.
Fresh ginger and the dried ground form are not interchangeable; the fresh has a pungent and peppery taste, while the ground has a milder, sweeter taste. If a recipe calls for fresh ginger use a spoon to scrap off the skin and mince or grate it. Ginger can be kept frozen almost indefinitely–you can remove it, grate what you need and replace the rest in the freezer. You can also keep peeled ginger under alcohol in the fridge–it won’t absorb the flavor of the alcohol.