GINGER – SPICE OF PARADISE
By Tatiana Pietrzak
Next to the salt and pepper shakers on a wealthy Medieval European table, was the indispensable shaker of exotic dried ginger (Zingiber officinale.) Although ginger can be quite pungent in concentrated amounts, in appropriate quantities it has enhanced the cuisines of many nations throughout the centuries.
Fresh ginger (which derives its name from the Sanskrit word stringa-vera meaning “with a body like antlers,”) is one of the main ingredients in Asian and Oriental cuisine. The dried ground root is used in many curry powders. Chutneys and curry pastes include ginger and it can also be found pickled. The popular pickled ginger, Gari or Shoga, found in Japanese restaurants, is used to cleanse the palate between bites of sushi and sashimi.
Ginger is a primary ingredient in Korean Kim Chee, a spicy fermented cabbage that is consumed every day with meals in Korea. The Chinese drink ginger tea at the onset of colds and flues, while Chinese fishermen have been chewing on the root to settle seasickness since the 5th century B.C.
Confucius is said to have had a simple diet yet he must have recognized the virtues of ginger. The major work of this ancient sage, known as the Analects, includes a disciple’s observation that Confucius, “ was never without ginger when he ate.”
In ancient India as well, those who could afford ginger had a few pieces as an appetizer to promote digestive powers. According to Reay Tannahill’s Food In History, ginger was considered and essential spice and was distributed throughout the Indian sub-continent from “…the plantations and entrepots in the south.”
Inevitably, the skillful Arab traders made their way into the Indus valley and found ginger to be a precious commodity. Dried ginger made its journey up the Red Sea and across the Arabian deserts as early as 2000 B.C. From there it then easily found its way into the cuisines of Persia, Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt and Ethiopia (where eventually the Arabs began cultivating the spice.
Later Rome, desiring all the luxuries of its surrounding nations, traded with the Arabs for ginger and added it to their sauces for roast meats.
At first the Romans where unable to pinpoint ginger’s origin because of mysterious tall tales the Arabs cleverly spread about where the origins of their spices. Of course, the merchants wanted to protect their trade interests. When the Romans finally did discover ginger’s source, they were unable to penetrate the Arab trade routes that lead to India and the Moluccas, or the ‘Spice Islands’.
Eventually Roman vessels found that the Monsoon winds would carry them to their desired destination, avoiding the protected and impenetrable Arab trade routes. Although the passageway was highly dangerous, they willingly risked their ships and men for the tastes of Paradise.