Ginger I

Tamil Time-Traveler
As Fundamental as Onions

“Fresh ginger is as fundamental to the Asian kitchen as onion is to European cuisine.” — Molly O’Neill

Ginger Flower

Ginger, like Rice, was an ancient Tamil time traveler around the Pacific Rim.  Ginger, which grows underground and has beautiful red and yellow flowers above ground, is one of the most important foods in Asian kitchens.  And it is healthy, too!

Natives of South India: Linguistic detectives have found out that the names for Ginger in the Indo-European languages all comes from ancient South Indian languages of the Dravidian family.  Both these vital Asian foods — Ginger and Rice — appear to be ancient natives of South India.

The Plant: Ginger is a gnarly plant that resembles a human hand.  In fact, the technical term for a clump of raw Ginger is a “hand” of Ginger.  And the smaller parts are called “fingers.”

So you sometimes find cookbooks instructing you to cut a finger from

A Hand of Ginger

a hand of Ginger.

Ginger Roots? Ginger grows underground, and is sometimes called “Ginger root.” Actually, Ginger is what is called a rhizome, which means that is is a horizontal underground plant stem with roots that sprout out from the stem at random. These roots are a kind of tuber, more like a potato than a true root.

Ginger’s Cousins: Ginger is part of a family that include two important relatives:

  • Lesser Galangal, a vegetable similar to a yam, used in Thai cooking
  • Greater Galangal, with a spicy and sweet flavor, similar to Ginger, used as a spice in Southeast Asian cuisine.

Ginger History: Ginger was cultivated in Southeast Asia from about 3,000 years ago.

Ginger Geography: Major Ginger-producing countries —

  • India
  • China
  • Indonesia
  • Nepal

Most of the other Pacific Rim countries also produce Ginger.  It is also grown in Australia and many parts of Africa.  In North American markets, besides Jamaica, Hawaii is a common source of early Ginger in the winter.

Ginger in Pacific Kitchens: Ginger spread early through the Chinese, Indian and Southeast Asian culture spheres.  It is as important in Asian kitchens as onions in the West.  And Ginger has important medical uses and health benefits.

Nutrition: Raw Ginger has only about 80 calories in 100 grams, while the powdered form has about 336 calories.  Whether fresh or powdered, Ginger is a source of Vitamins A and C, as well as phosphorus and potassium.

Ginger for Healing: Physicians of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Indian Ayurvedic Medicine treated Ginger as a potent tonic, by itself and as an ingredient in different prescriptions.

Ginger is a familiar culinary spice that has long had a strong reputation as a medicinal plant. Doctors in both ancient China and India regarded Ginger as an important medicine and used it in combination with other things in a variety of remedies.

People in many parts of the world value Ginger for its warming effect and role in stimulating digestion.  Also for help with upset stomachs, to relieve nausea, motion sickness and various aches and pains.

Health Benefits: Major benefits include —

  • relieve nausea and motion sickness
  • reduce stomach discomfort
  • reduce blood clotting
  • relieve migraine headaches
  • helps pain management

There are some indications Ginger may help control intestinal parasites, assist in management of arthritis, and help prevent development of cancers. The list continues,with extensive research being done in a number of Asian and European medical centers.  Physicians in North America appear to be unaware of much of this research.

Taken in moderate amounts, Ginger is nontoxic and has many health benefits. Some people experience mind gastrointestinal distress when too much Ginger is taken on an empty stomach, so it is best to take Ginger with food.

Much of the medical study of Ginger has focused on two groups of compounds, called gingerols and shogaols, that give Ginger its characteristic taste.

In addition, Ginger contains other enzymes and antioxidants that may be key elements. Among them are a group of compounds called eicosanoids, which appear to benefit healing and immunity.

When Ginger is dried, the gingerols convert into shoganols, which may have different properties, especially as anti-flammatory agents.  People with arthritis and other inflammatory conditions may benefit from using more than one form of Ginger.

The Avatars of Ginger: Since the fresh and dried forms of Ginger have different properties, the greatest benefits may come from taking more than one form of Ginger. Over history, a number of avatars of Ginger have evolved, taking advantage of its many properties. These can help Ginger fans obtain the greatest benefits from Ginger.

These avatars of Ginger are covered in more detail in other Articles on this site, with some recipes and formulas.

For Further Information:

Margaret Cormead and Heather MacDonald, The Joy of Ginger
Letha Hadady, Asian Health Secrets; The Complete Guide to Asian Herbal Medicines (New York: Crown, 1996)
FaXiang Hou, Unleashing the Power of Food: Recipes to Heal By (Baltimore: Agora, 2003).
Fumiko Matsumoto, Tadashii shokuseikatsuno tame no shokuhin seibunhyo (Tokyo: Shibata Shoten, 1995)
Nina Simonds, A Spoonful of Ginger
Andrew Weil, M.D., Spontaneous Healing (New York: Knopf, 1995)
“Ginger,” article, Wikipedia
Selene Yeager, The Doctor’s Book of Food Remedies (Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Press, 1997)

Triple Ginger Salad

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