Ginger is indigenous to Southeast Asia but is now grown across all tropical regions. Jamaican ginger is generally regarded as the best. Ginger is one of the oldest and most important spices. It has been cultivated for over 3,000 years. Confucius refers to it, as does the Koran. Apicius, a first century Roman epicure recommended it as a flavouring for sauces and pulses. It was as routinely used by ninth century Europeans as salt and pepper are used today. In the nineteenth century, English pubs often put out small containers of ground ginger for drinkers to sprinkle into their beer; this was the origin of the ginger beer we know today.
With various names, fresh ginger or ginger root (or even green ginger) is the knobbly, off-white or buff coloured, branched rhizome. Fresh ginger is dug up some five or six months after planting, washed and dried for a day or two. Ground ginger is prepared from dried rhizomes harvested eight to ten months after planting. Other forms of ginger are stem ginger (cooked and preserved in a heavy sugar syrup), pickled ginger (wafer thin slices preserved in vinegar) and candied ginger (candied, dried and rolled in sugar).
Ginger smells warm, pungent and sweet. Its flavour is hot and strong. Fresh ginger is widely used in Asian cooking, often in combination with fresh garlic and chillies. In Indian cooking, both fresh and dried ground ginger are used in curries and spice blends. In Western cooking, ground ginger is most commonly used in sweet recipes such as cakes, biscuits, and puddings. Ginger oil is used to flavour drinks.
The Greek physician Dioscorides recommended ginger for the stomach and it is still widely used in Asian medicine as a digestive aid. It is a well known aphrodisiac (perhaps because of its body-warming properties and its use to stimulate circulation); it is even mentioned in the Karma Sutra. Ginger’s best known medicinal uses are as a digestive aid and as a cure for nausea and motion sickness. It is anti-inflammatory and used in the treatment of arthritis and rheumatism. Ginger tea (an infusion of boiling water and ginger) is a popular decongestant. It is also a decongestant used to treat asthma and bronchitis.