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February 1, 2000

6 Min Read

February 2000 -- Spice Rack

  A Greek baker on the Isle of Rhodes is credited with introducing gingerbread around 2800 B.C. If that seems to give ginger a certain venerability, consider that this baker is thought to have gotten the idea from the Chinese, who had already been using ginger for a long time. The ginger chronicles  Actually, no one is sure how old this pungent spice is, or where exactly it came from, since it has never been found growing wild. The Chinese and Indians, however, were probably the earliest cultivators, and ginger was one of the first spices to be introduced to and achieve prominence in the western world.  Ginger pops up frequently throughout early Greek and Roman literature. The best guess is that most of it at that time came from India, but Arab traders who brought it to the Mediterranean were loathe to reveal its origin. The word ginger comes from the Latin zingiber, which in turn is from the ancient Indian Sanskrit singabera, meaning antlers, which dried ginger roots do resemble.  In the Middle Ages, ginger was valued on a par with black pepper - a pound of either was worth the price of a sheep. As with pepper, ginger was prized for preserving meats, and it frequently appeared in strong sauces and stews. It was also one of man's earliest medicines, much prescribed for its carminative properties in treating stomach disorders.  Gradually, however, the cake called gingerbread became the dominant use for this spice in Europe. This confection was known in England before the time of the Norman conquest, and manuscripts of the period refer to it variously as gyngerbreed, gensbrede, gyngerbrede and gingibretum. Along about the 15th century, creative bakers began shaping it into fanciful birds, animals and letters, and this led to gingerbread men. Gingerbread became a gift of love and respect. In Russia, at the birth of Peter the Great, the Czar received over 100 loaves of gingerbread, some of them weighing as much as 200 lbs. and appearing in the form of such things as the Russian imperial eagle and Moscow's coat of arms.  Gingerbread gave rise to a long list of ginger-spiced baked goods and sweet desserts in Europe - there were not only gingersnaps and ginger cakes, but also puddings, creams, biscuits, cordials and wines. In the 1800s, English taverns began keeping ground ginger at the bar for patrons to sprinkle atop their beer. From this custom emerged ginger beer and ginger ale. But while Europe favored ginger for baking and beverages, the eastern and oriental worlds continued to prize it more as a meat and fish condiment. To this day, it's essential to Indian curries, and probably appears more frequently in Chinese, Japanese and Polynesian main-dish recipes than any other spice.  Unlike other tropical spices, ginger is easily transported in plant form, and it was the first oriental spice to be introduced for cultivation in the Caribbean. Production was quickly established in Jamaica, and by 1547 that island was exporting ginger to Spain. Jamaica ultimately became known worldwide for the excellence of its ginger. Meanwhile, Portuguese explorers also took ginger plants to West Africa, where another ginger industry was established.What is ginger?  Ginger comes from the roots (actually, tuberous rhizomes, but more commonly called roots) of Singiber officinale Roscoe. Much ginger is sold in the fresh form today, and the fresh roots are also preserved in syrup and offered as a confection. But it's important to note that the spice ginger comes only from the dried roots of the plant. Ginger is a perennial, growing two to three feet tall and somewhat resembling the iris. The flowers are mainly yellow, with a distinctive purple lip.   Ginger is harvested by digging up the whole plant after its leaves turn yellow and wither, and breaking apart the tubers. The spice trade refers to whole pieces of dried ginger roots as "hands," and it is true that many pieces roughly resemble a palm with stubby fingers.  The appearance of dried ginger differs considerably, depending on its origin and the processing it receives. Unpeeled hands of ginger have a rough surface and tan color. Partially peeled pieces are lighter in color, while completely peeled products display shades of buff, or even off-white.Ginger types  India is the world's largest ginger producer. Indian dried ginger is an unpeeled product that has simply been washed and dried. The whole hands are light yellow in color and have subtle, lemon-like aroma and flavor undertones, which come from a small percentage of citral in the essential oil. Essential-oil content ranges from 1.9% to 2.2%.   China ships dried ginger in two forms - whole, peeled and sliced and unpeeled. The peeled product comes in two grades, No. 1 and No. 2; the former contains larger pieces and has a somewhat lighter color. The peeled product in general commands a higher price. The Chinese practice of slicing the unpeeled roots accelerates the drying process. Chinese ginger tends to be whiter in color than Indian, somewhat more fibrous, and a little "bitier" in flavor.  Jamaican ginger has traditionally been recognized as premier among gingers for the quality of its flavor, oil content and appearance. Sierra Leone's dried ginger is very pungent, and with a non-volatile ether extract of about 7.0% and volatile oil of approximately 1.6%, it is used largely for extraction. Nigeria and Australia also number among the ginger-producing countries.Using ginger  The best-recognized uses for ginger in the American market continue to be ginger ale, gingerbread and gingersnap cookies. It also appears in scores of sausage-product formulas, as well as in countless baked goods, other desserts, condiments, pickles and spice blends. In ginger ale and other soft drinks and pickles, ginger's oil or oleoresin extractives are normally used.   Subtle differences in color and flavor exist between the Indian and Chinese products, but these are not significant enough to affect end use, so origins are not usually differentiated in the ground ginger sold to industrial users. Specifications sometimes follow the Federal guidelines, which call for ground ginger to contain not less than 1.5% volatile oil and 42% starch, and not more than 7% total ash, 1% acid insoluble ash, 8% crude fiber and 12% moisture. Some of these may or may not be important criteria for different buying needs. It is always advisable to let a knowledgeable spice supplier help formulate specifications according to the nature of the planned usage. Laboratory time is too valuable to be wasted on checking non-relevant specifications.Handling ginger  Ground ginger should be stored in a cool, dry place. Excessive heat will volatilize and dissipate its aromatic essential oils, and high humidity tends to cake the spice. Containers should be stored off the floor and away from outside walls to minimize the chance of dampness. Tightly close containers after each use, because prolonged exposure to air can cause some loss of flavor and aroma. Under good storage conditions, ginger's aroma and flavor are retained long enough to meet any normal requirements of food manufacturing.
Spice Rack is based on the American Spice Trade Association's What You Should Know informational series on spices. For more information, call 201-568-2163, or visit www.astaspice.org.
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