Ginger belongs to the same family as turmeric and cardamom, and from ancient India and China to Greece and Rome, the rhizome (root) of ginger has been revered.
Gingerbread, ginger beer, and preserved ginger are all familiar products, but ginger is more than a seasoning – its medicinal properties have been valued and used throughout the ages.
The ginger plant is a creeping perennial with thick, tuberous underground stems that can grow up to one metre in height. Cultivated mainly in tropical countries, Jamaican ginger – a paler variety – is regarded as the best variety for culinary use. According to Chinese tradition, dried ginger tends to be hotter than fresh.
Native to South-east Asia, India and China, ginger has been an integral component of the region’s diet and valued for its aromatic, culinary and medicinal properties for thousands of years. The Romans first imported ginger from China, and by the mid-16th century, Europe was receiving more than 2000 tonnes per year from the East Indies. The top commercial producers of ginger now include Jamaica, India, Fiji, Indonesia and Australia.
Types of ginger
You can buy ginger in a variety of forms, including:
- Whole fresh roots, which provide the freshest taste
- Dried roots
- Powdered ginger, which is a dried root that has been ground
- Preserved or ‘stem’ ginger, which is made from fresh young roots that have been peeled, sliced and cooked in sugar syrup
- Crystallised ginger, which is also cooked in sugar syrup, then air-dried and rolled in sugar
- Pickled ginger, which is made by thinly slicing the root and pickling it in vinegar. In Japan this is known as gari, and often accompanies sushi to refresh the palate between courses
Ginger tea is great to drink when you feel a cold coming on. It’s a diaphoretic tea, meaning it will warm you from the inside and promote perspiration – so it’s just as good when you simply need to warm up.
To make ginger tea for nausea
Steep 20-40g of fresh, sliced ginger in a cup of hot water. Add a slice of lemon or a drop of honey to sweeten, if you like.
Other uses of ginger
In English pubs and taverns in the 19th century, bartenders would put out small containers of ground ginger for people to sprinkle into their beer – and it was the ancient Greeks who prized ginger so highly that they mixed it into their bread, creating the first ‘gingerbread’.
The many curative properties of ginger have been widely researched. When used on the skin, it can stimulate circulation and soothe burns. As a diaphoretic, it encourages perspiration and can therefore be used to help treat feverish conditions such as influenza or colds.
Helps relieve pain
The root, the part of the plant most widely used in alternative forms of medicine, is rich in volatile oils that contain the active component gingerol. This potent anti-inflammatory compound is believed to explain why people with osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis experience reductions in their pain levels and improvements in their mobility when they consume ginger regularly. Gingerols inhibit the formation of inflammatory cytokines, or chemical messengers of the immune system.
Soothes digestive system
Ginger has a long tradition of being very effective in alleviating discomfort and pain in the stomach. It’s regarded as an excellent carminative, a substance that promotes the elimination of excessive gas from the digestive system, and soothes the intestinal tract. Colic and dyspepsia respond particularly well to ginger.
Alleviates mild nausea
Ginger root has also been anecdotally reported to reduce the symptoms associated with motion sickness, including dizziness, nausea, vomiting and cold sweating. Ginger has been used to treat the nausea and vomiting associated with mild pregnancy sickness. However, check with your GP or midwife to ensure it is appropriate for you.
How to select and store
Fresh ginger can be purchased in most supermarkets, and the mature roots have a tough skin that requires peeling. Fresh ginger can be stored in the fridge for up to three weeks if left unpeeled. Whenever possible, choose fresh ginger over dried – it is superior in flavour and contains higher levels of gingerol. The root should be fresh-looking, firm, smooth and free of mould, with no signs of decay or wrinkled skin. If you choose dried ginger instead, store it in an airtight container in a cool, dark, dry place for no more than six months.
Although regarded as safe for a broad range of complaints, ginger is a potent herb that acts pharmacologically, so it may be unsuitable for some. Ginger also contains moderate amounts of oxalate, so individuals with a history of oxalate-containing kidney stones should avoid eating too much ginger. If you’re unsure or concerned about whether it is safe for you to consume ginger, always consult your doctor.