Ginger, as far as spices go, is an embodiment of contrasts. It is an exotic bridge between the cuisines of the East and the West. Lauded for its soothing medicinal properties, it is also cursed for its propensity to cause gastric irritation. Traditional folk lore believes in its ability as a powerful aphrodisiac or, alternatively, as a talisman against evil. In order for the plant to thrive, ginger requires the duality of extreme weather. The fibrous, knobby root inspires both savoury and sweet dishes.
There are few cooking ingredients that can successfully infuse all manner of dishes, from appetizers to desserts, with such agility. The warming, piquant, flavour of ginger is just as at home in hot and sour soup as it is in ice cream. The versatility of the spice, long used in Eastern cuisine, has gained a strong foothold (tongue hold?) on the Western palate.
Ginger is native to India and China, although most of the ginger available in North America has been grown in Jamaica, which is said to be of superior quality. The creeping, perennial plant requires a tropical climate with both a hot dry season and a heavy rain season. The root part that we use in cooking is really a tuberous rhizome which can be bought in several different forms. As the root is easily transported it was one of the first spices to be carried along ancient trade routes.
Ground ginger in powder form is most commonly used in baking. It has its own unique flavour that is sweetly spicy and should not be used as a substitute for fresh ginger in recipes. The flavour dissipates quite quickly so the powder should be used within two months of purchase for full potency. Apparently, ground ginger was put out in bowls in English taverns for patrons to sprinkle over their beer, the precursor to modern ginger ale.
Pickled ginger is thinly sliced pieces of root that have been brined in a sweet and salt vinegar. It is most often served to cleanse the palate between servings of sushi.
Crystallized ginger and preserved ginger are both sweet confections that can be eaten as is or added to baked goods to impart a chewy texture and hot kick. Pieces of fresh ginger are slowly cooked in a heavy sugar syrup until all of the moisture has been replaced by sugar. They are either preserved in this syrup or removed, coated with more sugar and dried to make crystallized ginger, which keeps indefinitely in a sealed glass jar. Store preserved ginger in syrup for up to six months in the fridge.
Fresh ginger root, most often used in savoury dishes, is tan in colour and bumpy in texture. The origin of its name comes from the Sanskrit word for ginger which means "horn root", referring to its gnarled appearance. The rough skin needs to be peeled away to reveal the fibrous flesh underneath which ranges in colour from deep yellow to pale ivory. I find the easiest way to peel fresh ginger is with the side of a small spoon. When scraped with slight pressure the skin is lifted away, leaving most if not all the good stuff in tact. A vegetable peeler or a sharp paring knife will work as well but will steal some of the inner flesh.