"He was never without ginger when he ate. He did not eat much."
--from The Analect, on Confucius' diet

"Nose, nose,
jolly red nose,
Who gave thee
this jolly red nose?
...Nutmegs and ginger,
cinnamon and cloves,
And they gave me
this jolly red nose."

--Francis Beaumont, The Knight of the Burning Pestle: I, 1

DOOLITTLE. Not me, Governor, thank you kindly. I've heard all the preachers and all the prime ministers, for I'm a thinking man and game for politics or religion or social reform same as all the other amusements and I tell you it's a dog's life, anyway you look at it. Undeserving poverty is my line. Taking one station in society with another, it's, it's, well, it's the only one that has any ginger in it, to my taste.
--George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion, Act II

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(Zingiber officinale)

Ginger--those fat stubby "hands" of creeping rhizomes--apparently originated in Southeast Asia or China. A 3rd century BCE essay "Seeking the Root of Sapors" claims that Shang dynasty rulers--all the way back in the 8th to 12th centuries BCE--had already pinpointed the place in the Sichuan region where the finest ginger in the world grew. Then, some 2500 years later in 13th century AD, Marco Polo recorded seeing vast plantations devoted to growing it in "Cathay."

Both ancient Hindu and Chinese cultures thought highly of its medicinal qualities--as far ranging as aiding digestion, restoring appetite, regulating menstruation, and stimulating sexual desire. Along the way, it was also supposed to cure colds, liver ailments, nausea, anemia, rheumatism, piles, jaundice, tetanus, and leprosy. It was a staple in the diet of Confucius--and was put in the tombs of the royal dead for afterlife nourishment. Until recently, it was tacked to the doors of Chinese homes where a baby had been born...to absorb any bad character traits that might come walking in to visit. In Chinese cuisine, ginger is yang, or hot--one of the reasons it is renowned for chasing away the "damps" of colds, rheums, and other illnesses.

Ginger was probably introduced to Japan in the 3rd century BCE, when Japan was first exposed to Ch'in dynasty medicine--and Japan also uses it as a yang ingredient to achieve a harmonic cuisine. Likewise ginger arrived in Korea from China and quickly became a primary ingredient in its classic kimchi.

In Western culture, Assyrians and Babylonians used it in cooking, then ancient Egyptians and Persians. King Solomon enjoined the Phoenicians to ply the Red Sea for it. But it was the Arab traders who ultimately capitalized on it. Greeks used it because they thought it was good for them; Romans, because they doted on it.

Let it be noted that Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines developed using dried ginger, not fresh. Why? Because that's the only way it could arrive unspoiled after caravanning all the way from Asia and India over land and sea routes. And in most cases, even when fresh became available, these cuisines stuck to tradition, using dried ginger by preference. The exception is Ethiopian cooking, but there's a reasonable chance that fresh ginger was possibly cultivated there in ancient times: Dioscorides and Pliny both "bought" the fanciful spice stories of Arab traders (told to protect their sources), yet it's not completely outside the realm of possibility that live ginger rhizomes survived an early sea voyage from Indonesia (there's evidence of outrigger voyages) and began to grow in Ethiopa.

One interesting recipe for the Moroccan candy majoun uses dried ginger and hashish.

The English had it before the Norman Conquest in 1066--likely brought by Roman soldiers--and it grew in popularity so that by the 14th century it was put on wealthy dinner tables along with salt and pepper as an all-purpose seasoning...and was so highly coveted that a pound of it cost the same as a whole sheep. Shakespeare refers to it in dried formed as a "race" (from the Portuguese/Spanish raices, meaning root), whence our word "racy." It's the English fondness for it that spread to the colonies in the New World in the shape of gingersnaps, gingerbread, ginger beer, and ginger ale.

Spaniards brought it to the New World in the 16th century to cultivate it--and so get around those capitalist spice traders who monopolized the trade in Europe. By 1547, Jamaica was exporting shiploads of it back to Spain. The Portuguese, too, had slaves cultivate it in West Africa and Brazil, where in its fresh form it became a standard in African and slave cookery.

The fresh ginger root, sold in most supermarkets, can be frozen almost indefinitely--then hauled out whenever needed so you can grate the required amount before sticking the remaining root back in the freezer.

Other members of the family? Turmeric, galangal, cardamoms, and Mioga ginger (Zingiber mioga), which last the Japanese pickle and dye pink to serve as a beautiful garnish on dishes like sashimi (and which they eat fresh as part of a Buddhist tradition).