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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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02.26.09

Ruling Rhizome

Food History, Recipes


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Helen of Troy may have been a great beauty, but spices have launched more ships. The world has pursued big, exotic flavors for almost as long as the world has eaten—and among big, exotic flavors, almost nothing surpasses Zingiber officinale, better known as ginger. Ginger was one of the “big three” spices (along with black pepper and cinnamon) for which everyone, for most of recorded history, wanted to get to the Far East.

Ginger has been enjoyed in its native tropical Asia (probably India and Malaysia) since the misty ages of prehistory. In fact, it has been cultivated there for so long that its wild forebear no longer exists.

The plant’s name has its ultimate origin in the Sanskrit word sringavera, which means “horn-root.” The evolution of the name, from sringavera to ginger, is actually easier to follow than some word histories. Sringavera became dzungebir in Persian and dzingiberi in Greek. In Latin, it turned into zingiber (hence its scientific name). Italian, Spanish, and French called (and call) it zenzero, gengibre, and gingembre, respectively. German gets a little farther afield with Ingwer, and Dutch offers gember. Old English was gingifer, which traced back pretty directly to the Latin.

The movements of the spice itself follow fairly closely the same route as its name. From India, where it has long been lavishly employed in the local cuisines, it was brought to Persia by Darius the Great in the fifth century BC. After that, it popped up in each succeeding important civilization. (Ginger’s large, flattish rhizomes, commonly called “hands” in today’s spice trade, shipped well, and were therefore a popular and important commodity of trade in ancient times, even when other things weren’t traveling well.) It was so popular in Rome that the government counted on it for income—they taxed it so heavily that, despite being abundant, it was 15 times the cost of black pepper—but it still sold briskly.

Often, ginger was even more appreciated for its nutritional value or health benefits. A medical school founded in Salerno, Italy during the Middle Ages published a health book that spoke highly of ginger, and though they touted its value as a digestive aid and brain stimulant, it was probably their belief that it was an aphrodisiac that caused its wild popularity throughout the medieval world. (Though some of the old beliefs have been discredited, the medicinal value of ginger is still held in high regard, even in Western medicine. It’s powerfully anti-inflammatory and is fairly effective at relieving nausea.)

When the Renaissance began, strong flavors went out the door in French cuisine, but the Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, Flemish, and Scandinavian countries still value it, primarily as sweets or in beverages, as they have done since the days of the Norman expansion. Of course, ginger has never lost its huge popularity in the East, appearing in everything from first course to last, and continues to grow in popularity worldwide, as varied cuisines that utilize it become more widely available.

I’ve made a couple of trips to Thailand, a gloriously exotic place that is among the several tropical locales where ginger grows easily and everywhere. Its bright, fragrant flowers can be seen decorating most backyards, and hands of ginger are piled high in the markets. It flavors stir-fries and curries, teas and sweets.

In Thailand, as in most of Asia, tea is the most widely consumed beverage. However, because of its latitude, Thailand doesn’t get cold weather. Much of the year is, in fact, steamy, so cold drinks are welcome. In Thailand, iced coffee is very popular, and cans of iced coffee are more common (and cheaper) than Coca Cola. Sweet, locally produced sodas and fruit juices are also abundant. This sweet ginger soda from Thailand is the perfect treat for anyone who loves ginger. It has a delightfully tropical taste, along with a bit of a bite, thanks to ginger’s fiery nature. Enjoy.

Thai Ginger Soda

1/4 cup chilled khing chuam (recipe below)
1 cup (or more) chilled seltzer water or club soda
ice

Combine the syrup and soda water and stir to blend. Add ice. Enjoy.

Note: Be aware that the 1 cup of seltzer is more a starting point than a guarantee. It’s authentic, but I find it is too sweet for my tastes, and I add seltzer until it tastes right (usually at least another 1/2 cup).
Lime and ginger make a nice flavor combination, so I sometimes use lime-flavored seltzer water with the syrup. Mint also blends well with the flavor of ginger, so a sprig of mint makes a nice garnish.

Khing Chuam
(Ginger Syrup)

2 quarts water
1 lb. fresh ginger, coarsely chopped
4 cups sugar

In a large saucepan over high heat, bring water and ginger to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer, uncovered, for 1 hour. Remove from the heat, and let cool slightly. Strain and measure the liquid. Determine how much more liquid you need to create four cups of liquid. You can just add enough water to make up the four cups, but I generally heat the needed additional water and pour it over the boiled ginger, stirring it, and then straining, so that even my topping-up liquid is gingery.

Place the 4 cups of ginger-liquid in a clean saucepan and stir in the sugar. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Cook, uncovered, until the liquid is syrupy, about 30 minutes. (Cool a spoonful after 30 minutes to test.) Remove from the heat and set aside to cool to room temperature. Pour into a clean, dry bottle or jar, cover tightly, and refrigerate.

Notes: Khing is the Thai word for ginger.

If you like this as much as I do, it probably won’t hang around the refrigerator too long. However, if you use it slowly, don’t worry. With that much sugar, if you keep it in the fridge, it should be safe into the next century.

Ginger syrup can also be used to flavor iced tea, and I think it makes a lovely topping for ice cream.

3 Comments on "Ruling Rhizome"

Kacie

Former Chicago resident here - I just wanted to note that we have a Chicago representative on the less-then-quality show, Hells Kitchen. I kept seeing a face I thought I recognized on the commercials for Hell’s Kitchen and finally looked him up.

Sure enough, I know Ben from my days of serving at the Club at the Symphony Center and their related restaurants/catering company. I watched today’s show and laughed at Ben’s arrogant persona - he is indeed a loudmouth but he’s also a pretty easy-going and likeable guy in real life. It’s fun to see someone you know on a reality TV show!



kristina

so… i made this this recipe this weekend… SOOOOOO GOOD!!! It was a test of patience, but the product was tasty, sweet (you warned us) and really good.

Thanks!



Cynthia

Thanks, Kristina. Glad you liked it. It’s definitely only for those who love ginger, but for those of us who do, it really delivers.



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