Always when I think of ginger the first thing that comes to mind is that spicy, brown, delicious, refreshing drink traditionally made at Christmas time, ginger beer! However, through my continued culinary discoveries I have come to make ginger an integral part of my cooking and now I am never out of fresh ginger.
Let’s talk about the traditional ways we use ginger in the Caribbean. When you have a cold or fever, the remedies come flying from all directions, one of which is to make some ginger tea and drink it — it will burn out the fever or in the case of the cold, clear up yuh nose and sinuses.
Most of the times when we talk about ginger we think only of its medicinal capacity. It is said to be an effective digestive aid and most people who cook with ginger or consume it in teas etc. do so because they believe in its medicinal properties.
Research and studies still continue today and vary about the effectiveness of ginger in decreasing inflammation, reducing joint pain from arthritis, blood thinning and cholesterol lowering properties.
But ginger is much more than a medicine. Today I want to talk about ginger as a spice, a flavour and a flavour enhancer. This light brown-skinned, juicy root with its pale yellow interior packs quite a punch wherever you add it – in desserts, savoury dishes or beverages. It’s a spice that if it were at school, would get a good report card that says something like this:
“Ginger is a leader,” as exemplified in ginger beer.
“Ginger is also a team player,” as is clearly exhibited in curries.
“Ginger plays well with others,” as demonstrated in cookies, cakes and crackers. A++
When making fried rice and chow mein, my mom always added freshly grated ginger (thanks to the influence of her Chinese best pal, Auntie Bernice) and so I grew up cooking with it in that way. Combined with the garlic, soy sauce and five-spice powder, the ginger seems to heighten the other flavours while at the same time asserting itself in Asian cuisines.
Thais use a lot of ginger in their cuisine also. A Thai curry would just not be the same without some ginger and it was because of this cuisine that I started adding ginger to my curry pastes. But let me backtrack a little so you know what I mean.
The street-food scene in Barbados comes alive on the weekends and one Friday night several years ago, a friend and I stopped to get some food and decided rather than take-away, we’d have it right there. As we sat eating, the owner of the establishment, a chef who works for one of the upscale restaurants, came over to our bench and we started to chat about food. He told us about a curried chicken he’d made recently and that to finish the curry, he grated fresh ginger and added it to the curry. Hmmmmm, I thought, how interesting. I filed that piece of info to the back of my mind to try the next time I made chicken curry.
About a month later, I was watching the Discovery Travel Channel and they were featuring Thai cuisine. A Thai woman was demonstrating and explaining to the host how she makes her curry paste. In addition to hot chilies, garlic, onions etc, she added some chopped ginger and continued to pound away with her mortar and pestle. I immediately sat up paying rapt attention. Thoughts of my conversation with the chef of adding freshly grated ginger to the curry were swirling my head.
The very next day, I set about making chicken curry to which I added ginger, to the paste and also a fresh squeeze to finish off the dish. To this day, I can still taste that curry. There was a light freshness to it, the garam masala and the other aromatics had all balanced themselves out evenly, and the chicken, completely relaxed in this heady curry sauce had absorbed the flavours.
These days, whenever I make curry, I always put fresh ginger in it even though the masala mix already contains ground ginger. Only when I am cooking chicken or fish curry though, do I add more fresh ginger to finish off the dish.
Ginger is a spice that’s used a lot in the Indian cuisine also — both the fresh root and the ginger paste.
Ginger originated in Southern China and its cultivation spread to India, Southeast Asia, West Africa and to our own little corner of the world, the Caribbean. It’s always pleasing to go to the market and find fresh ginger complete with bits of soil still clinging to it.
If the skin looks wrinkled, don’t buy it; it is not fresh. With fresh ginger, the skin is shiny, smooth and always plump, a sign of its juiciness. When described as a bouquet, ginger is warm, sweet and pungent, as a flavour, it’s fiery, sharp and fresh.
When using fresh ginger, you can mince it, crush it or slice it, each treatment will give you varying degrees of ginger flavour — if the ginger is minced it’s easier for more of the flavour to permeate the dish; sliced, gives more surface area for the flavour to interact with the other ingredients in a dish but not with the intensity of the minced ginger; crushed, it will impart a subtle flavour.
So the next time you head out to the market or supermarket and spy some fresh ginger, grab some and make an ice cream, cake, cookies, curry or some ginger beer. As for me, right now I’m off to have a tall ice-cold glass of ginger beer that my mom made.
* Cynthia Nelson is a journalist, tutor, food photographer and author of the award-winning book: Tastes Like Home – My Caribbean Cookbook (IRP 2010). She writes regularly about food in various Caribbean Publications.
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