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Following the Spice Trail: Ginger

Posted: March 18, 2008

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Ginger is a rhizome, a thick, horizontal underground stem that grows from root, not seed. A small piece of root with a growth spur is typically selected for planting in May, 6 inches deep. This plant sends up green, leafy stalks each spring. These stalks grow to between 12 and 40 inches in height and end in a spike from which small yellow-green flowers grow. The flowers are aromatic, but it is the rhizome that is the most useful part of the plant.

The gnarled rhizomes are harvested in November, at which point the entire root is lifted. From 22 lb of root planted, there is usually a ten-fold increase in weight on harvest. Due to the cold winter climate, the root cannot be dried in the ensuing months. A proportion of the root is sold at this time to spice dealers. The remaining root is stored in underground (10 ft deep) earthpits in Anhui and covered with soil. In Shandong, the biggest producing province in China, the root is stored in 32 ft deep pits supported by concrete cylinders. In March/April of the following year, the root is retrieved from this underground storage and graded. The good quality root is selected for the fresh spice market or for replanting. Any root not suitable for selling as dried root is processed into oil.

The Versatile Spice

Ginger is used in many different forms across the world:

  • Fresh ginger: Fresh ginger (minced, crushed, grated, sliced or chopped) is an essential flavoring ingredient for many Asian dishes. It imparts a fresh, peppery flavor and spicy aroma. Once cooked, fresh ginger is less pungent and provides a milder flavor. Fried ginger is used in both Chinese and Indian cookery, for example in stir-fries and curries.
  • Pickled ginger: Pickled ginger is also a popular accompaniment in Eastern cuisine. In Japan, for instance, pickled ginger is known as "gari" and "beni shoga" and eaten with sushi.
  • Dry ginger: In the West, the more aromatic and less pungent dried form is traditionally most common. It is mainly used in baked goods, such as ginger snaps and gingerbread, puddings, preserves and drinks, including ginger ale and ginger beer: two refreshing, non-alcoholic soft drinks popular in the United States and United Kingdom, respectively. As ethnic foods become increasingly popular, fresh ginger is now readily available in Europe and America.
  • Preserved ginger: Preserved ginger, often known as stem ginger, is another form of the spice. It is generally added to cakes and puddings, but sometimes eaten on its own as a spicy treat, as is crystallized ginger.

One Plant, Many Benefits