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All About Ginger

August 13, 2014

For millennia, ginger has been the omnipresent worker bee of Asian cuisine, fortifying weak terrines and tummies. Stephanie Zubiri tracks the plant’s pep around the continent.

Published on Aug 13, 2014

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I've done most of my soul searching throughout the years by experiencing Asian cultures through the plate. Sitting in Singapore-based celebrity chef Samia Ahad's open kitchen at Coriander Leaf, it hits me. Watching her fry spices for a chicken korma—the creamy, braised dish with its origins in India and Pakistan—in a large skillet, the heady scent of sizzling onions, garlic, cinnamon, cumin and ginger permeating my skin, I realize how crucial ginger root is to cuisines across the continent.

Ginger butter prawns at Coriander Leaf
Ginger butter prawns at Coriander Leaf Restaurant and Cooking Studio, Singapore.

Ancient ayurvedics called it a "universal great medicine" and ginger's use in cooking is found in the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, which dates back to the 4th century BC. There is evidence, actually, that it was cultivated in the Indian subcontinent as early as the 2nd millennium BC, spreading to the rest of Asia as it was integrated into cooking techniques. The main purpose originally was to perfume food that was no longer fresh, but necessity eventually gave rise to innovation. So, history saw each of the regions going off on its own culinary tangent while retaining similar uses for the plant and beliefs about the root's powers. "Asian cuisine is not the same without ginger, the root of which is finely chopped or grated, and together with onion and garlic is the basis of many a stir-fry or curry," Loukie Werle and Jill Cox write in their exhaustive culinary book, Ingredients.

Paradoxically, I'd say, most of us overlook ginger's astonishing omnipresence precisely because it is so common. Being Asian, and growing up in Manila, I never really gave ginger a second thought, it sneaking into dishes ranging from steamed garoupa in the Chinese restaurant to sushi platters in the Japanese. Looking back, I can’t think of a moment when ginger was not present on the kitchen counter, sitting there, like a gnarly mystical icon, the discreet deity of culinary lore, sometimes mellow and meek, but most of the time powerful in its flavor and essence. An old Hindu proverb referring to the ignorant and unappreciative of the details in life goes, "Can the monkey know the taste of ginger?" I suppose I've been a bit of a simian all these years, eating away without giving the spice its due credit.

An unsung hero, ginger is the supporting character without which the delicious plots of many a recipe could not unfold. It's used as an active ingredient—lending fire and adding layers, a mashed-up member of the party in Thai curries, and backstroking around Chinese soups—and as a covert agent: Indians use it to mask the smell of odorous meats like lamb, Japanese to cover fishiness, and Filipinos to hide any strong, potentially unappealing scent. "It gives all dishes the fifth element of Asian cuisine without being overpowering," says Thai Tu Tho, owner of May Restaurant in Saigon, who calls ginger the third most important ingredient in Vietnamese food after fish and soy sauces. "Ginger represents the heat of the dish without being fiery."

May Restaurant
Plunge into pink duck breast with ginger nuoc mam (fish sauce) at May Restaurant in Saigon.

"Ginger is always there in cooking, teas and all, and that goes for each South Asian country," says Chef Avanish Kumar Jain, who works at Spices in The Peninsula Manila but misses the Muslim quarter in his hometown of New Delhi, "where you can eat nihari, a rich lamb stew topped with lemons, radishes, coriander leaves and strips of ginger." Indians use it as a paste with garlic for tandooris, and, freshly grated, dried and ground, it is one of the most important ingredients in curry, sometimes lending sweetness, other times heat and providing a certain depth in the harmony of flavors without hogging the limelight, he says. "Without ginger, no curry can be made.

Nor most Japanese food. "Almost 80 percent of Japanese dishes have ginger. [The cuisine] could not exist without ginger," says chef Toshiro Okajima of Tsukiji in Manila. "We use it to make broths. We pickle it, make marinades from the juice, use it fresh to top miso. We garnish with ginger flowers, braise meats with it and sometimes even use the very young and fresh ginger for tempura." Okajima could go on, but his point, I think, is that each dish is crafted with a careful selection of ingredients that creates a subtle backdrop on which ginger can truly shine.

Buta Shoga Yaki at Tsukiji, in Manila
Chef Toshiro Okajima recommends the buta shoga yaki (stir-fried pork and ginger) at Tsukiji, in Manila.

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