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, 2014Page : 1 2
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 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."
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.
Chef Toshiro Okajima recommends the buta shoga yaki (stir-fried pork and ginger) at Tsukiji, in Manila.
The best quality ginger is found, according to Chef Kwong Wai Keung of two-Michelinstarred T'ang Court in Hong Kong's Langham Hotel, in China's Guangdong province. He recommends the city's famed ginger and scallion crab dish as an exemplary showcase of the spice. Unlike in many other Asian countries, my native Filipino cuisine doesn't make use of a vast array of fragrant spices and herbs. Ginger happens to be one of the few truly exciting ingredients we use. "Ginger adds a peppery zing to any dish," says food writer and restaurateur Claude Tayag, especially in making kinilaw, our local ceviche."
Sliced garoupa with deer tendons, vegetables and straw mushrooms in ginger fish soup at T'ang Court, Hong Kong.
The star of much Thai cuisine is blue ginger, galangal, which is more floral and intense, giving food a more pungent, piney, mustardlike dimension. But also keep an eye out for fresh young ginger or its flower in any number of dishes, say, chopped in stir-fries and julienned in salads, notes Kanchanaburi-born, Thai-Chinese Chef Baimonh Tanataveetram of the Rock Restaurant and Bar in Bangkok. "My favorite dish is kanom jin sao nahm—rice noodles dressed in coconut, lime, fresh pineapple, chili and fresh young ginger topped with dried shrimp," he says. "I like using young ginger, it has a little bit of heat, a good smell and it heals your stomach."
Coconut-poached prawns and pineapple topped with fresh young ginger.
The beauty of the best food lies in its inherent quality of being both pleasurable and nourishing. That's ginger incarnate. It is central for stews "as its warmth stays longer in the body than chili. Historically and traditionally, it is used to cure all sickness symptoms," May Restaurant's Thai says. "It is also to keep your blood flow at a good pressure if you're old and to give you an energy kick when you're younger but exhausted." Adds Okajima, "My grandmother always told me, eat ginger for good skin!"
There's modern—and Western—consensus on ginger's medicinal abilities. Various recent studies have shown ginger relieving muscle pain, improving asthma medications, managing hypertension, mitigating liver damage caused by acetaminophen and proving as effective in treating migraines as the drug sumatriptan. The use of ginger in oncology is also becoming more prevalent, from simply reducing nausea in chemotherapy patients to possibly helping prevent certain cancers. Participants in a University of Michigan Medical School study who were given ginger root supplements showed reduced inflammation markers (a precursor to colon cancer) in their colon within only one month as compared to the control group, according to a paper published last autumn in the journal Cancer Prevention Research.
These scientific findings only seem to prove what travelers and traders have known for at least 2,500 years. Having originated in the Indian subcontinent, the easily transportable root likely traveled to China and Southeast Asia via the Silk Road, beginning even before the term was coined during the Han Dynasty, back between 206 BC and 220 AD. Imagine ancient merchants braving the cool climates of northern India, crossing the steep mountain ranges of southern China all the way up to Chengdu, all the while warming their hands and hearts with a caravan-side brewed cup of fortifying ginger tea. Chinese sailors used to bring potted ginger plants aboard their ships to combat scurvy and seasickness. (Today, my friends' Chinese grandmothers chew ginger candies to ward off carsickness.)
The Chinese and Indian civilizations of yore were important proponents of ginger's culinary integration. Both dietary traditions are anchored in strong beliefs in food therapy and were developed around finding inner harmony. Much of today's Indian cooking is rooted in the ayurvedic practices of eating specifically to cure and prevent ailments caused by the disproportion of one's three elemental substances, or doshas. Likewise, the ancient Chinese practice of Shiliao believes in the warming and cooling properties of certain ingredients that can be used to counteract the imbalance of heat and cold in one's body—the main source of illness and disease. In both spheres, ginger represents a good source of fire, which is presumed to strengthen the spirit.
Which is probably why traditional therapies prescribe eating it as an imperative for pregnant women and new mothers. "I heard a story about a man who was looking for ginger for his sick wife who was expecting her first born," says Thai Tu Tho. "After a lot of prayers, the man found a ginger root that had a human face. He brought it back to his wife and after having it with congee, she immediately felt better and delivered a beautiful baby boy." And Kwong Wai Keung has" an unforgettable childhood memory. As I grew up in a poor family, we were unable to afford pig's trotters, which is what normally a woman will eat after giving birth. Therefore, my mum ate duck eggs with ginger and rice wine after she gave birth to recuperate her health."
A few weeks back I was taken ill—pregnant, bedridden, devoid of energy, depressed. My husband was away at work and even my dogs forsook my darkened room. My only friends? A steaming bowl of arroz caldo and warm cup of salabat tea. For anyone with a smidgen of Filipino heritage, arroz caldo, white rice cooked gently in a broth of chicken, garlic and the magic ingredient—ginger—this soupy, thick, deliciously satisfying mush seasoned with fish sauce, fried garlic, spring onions and tangy calamansi lime is the culinary equivalent of your mother's embrace. In my childhood home, the ginger dominated, bits of it floating about, acting as welcome fragrant bursts of sweet heat, warming the coldest of chills from inside out. And, brewed to a sharp intensity, salabat, a strong spicy ginger tea with lots of honey, was simultaneously pleasant and disagreeable to a young child.
Ideas for this article had been percolating in my brain for weeks. That day, I began to regard my soup and tea allies a bit differently from how I had as a girl. With each taste of ginger came a memory—that bowl of gingered chili clam soup in Saigon; the black chicken curry at the foot of Sigiriya Rock in Sri Lanka; the curry paste I pounded in Chiang Mai… Plus the overwhelming sense of comfort in the universal belief that throughout Asia, people will recommend the same cure. "Everything good is found in ginger," says another Indian proverb. Well, I say a little ginger in everything does everyone good.
Steamed seabass with ginger perfumes the dining room of Spices, at The Peninsula Manila.
T'ang Court Order this: Sliced garoupa with deer tendons, preserved vegetables, straw mushrooms and tomatoes in gingered fish soup. The Langham; 8 Peking Rd., Tsimshatsui, Kowloon; +852 2132 7898; hongkong.langhamhotels.com.
Downtown Cafe Order this: Chinilaw-Chicharon Kinilaw (citrus-washed tuna ceviche, pork cracklings, apple and cucumber kimchi) and Iced Salabat Tea. The Quad at Nepo Mart, Angeles City, Pampanga; +63 917 676 1689.
Spices Order this: Steamed seabass with ginger. The Peninsula Manila; corner of Ayala and Makati Avenues, Makati City, MM; +63 2 887 2888; peninsula.com/manila.
Tsukiji Order this: Buta shoga yaki (stir-fried pork and ginger). 900 Arnaiz Ave., Makati City, MM; +63 2 812 2913; tsukiji-restaurant.com.
Coriander Leaf Restaurant and Cooking Studio Order this: Ginger butter prawns, or Tandoori chicken. 3A Merchant Court #02-03, River Valley Rd., Clarke Quay; +65 6732 3354; corianderleaf.com.
Rock Restaurant and Bar Order this: Kaonom jin (coconut-poached prawns and pineapples topped with fresh young ginger). 7/1 Soi Chumnanaaksorn Paholyothin 9 Rd., Bangkok; +66 8 2688 8200; facebook.com/rockrestaurantandbar.
May Restaurant Order this: Pink duck breast with ginger nuoc mam (fish sauce). 3/5 Hoang Sa, Q1, Saigon; +84 8 3910 1277; may-cloud.com.