It was a shining autumn day as Zhu Yinfeng, private chef to Hangzhou restaurateur Dai Jianjun, and I walked out into the fields of an organic farm in southern Zhejiang province. A few puffs of white clouds floated in an azure sky. Birds trilled against a background hum of insects. We walked among the neat rows of vegetables, Zhu pulling up a few loose heads of bok choy and laying them in his basket.
And then, in the shade of a row of peach trees, there was a patch of plants with dramatic clusters of spear-like leaves, vivid as a Rousseau painting. Zhu crouched and dug, and soon he had plucked out of the earth a whole bunch of ginger rhizomes, their pale golden yellow tinged with rosy pink, each one thrusting upwards with spiky horns of tight-furled leaves. It was the first ginger I’d ever seen in the field and shockingly beautiful.
In southern China, ginger is a core ingredient in daily meals. In Europe, its warm, peppery aroma is one of the scents of winter, of gingerbread and biscuits, hot ginger tea for coughs and colds, candied ginger on the Christmas table and gingerbread houses jewelled with sweets.
The ginger plant, Zingiber officinale, a relative of cardamom and turmeric and lover of hot and humid terrains, is thought to be native to south or south-east Asia, but its precise origins are unknown. Cultivated for so long that it cannot propagate itself by seed, it no longer exists in the wild. The word “ginger” in English, as in many other languages, comes from ancient Tamil, which later gave the Sanskrit term srngaveram, meaning “horned root”.
Dried ginger was one of the first exotic spices imported to the west. Its roots, or strictly speaking rhizomes, are thought originally to have been carried across the oceans thousands of years ago by Austronesians who migrated from southern China first to the Philippines and then to places as far-flung as Madagascar, New Zealand and Easter Island. (Andrew Dalby explains the linguistic evidence for this theory in his book Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices.)
Imported from Eritrea and Arabia, the spice was prized by the ancient Greeks and Romans as a warming medicine and an antidote to poison. After the fall of the Roman empire, it continued to be imported by sea from India and Africa. From the 16th century, it was grown in the West Indies by Spanish colonists. These days, the world’s leading producers of ginger are India and China.
In medieval Europe, the wealthy could choose among different grades of ginger, imported in dried form from Africa or Asia. A 16th-century English cookbook by Thomas Dawson mentioned that ginger, along with nutmeg, lemons and other luxuries, was a necessary component of a banquet. Europeans used ginger in all kinds of dishes, sweet and savoury.
Hannah Wooley’s 1672 cookbook, The Queene-Like Closet, included a recipe for swan pie, the bird seasoned with pepper, salt and ginger. By the early 17th century, Chinese ginger preserved in syrup was being sold in Europe — which may be the origin of the later European fashion for ornamental “ginger jars”. Over time, ginger became cheaper and more commonplace, but cooks lost their medieval adventurousness: by the 18th century, according to The Oxford Companion to Food, its use had become more narrowly focused on baked goods such as biscuits and cakes.
If ginger was originally exotic to European tastes, in China it has long been familiar, esteemed as a medicine and eaten in savoury and sweet dishes. Ginger is mentioned in The Analects of Confucius (which notes that Confucius ate ginger, though sparingly). It was one of the foods found in the Han Dynasty Mawangdui tombs, which date back to the third century BC. When the legendary chef Yi Yin, according to a text of the same era, used gastronomical analogy to discuss the art of government, he mentioned ginger from the Sichuan region as one of the finest seasonings in the realm.
Like other spices, ginger is not merely an aromatic but an irritant that produces a physical sensation in the mouth — the result, says food science expert Harold McGee, of lemony and woody terpenoid chemicals that are part of the plant’s defence system. The Chinese classify it as a pungent (xin) ingredient, along with garlic, chillies and mustard. As young ginger rhizomes age, their skin thickens and they become fibrous and peppier — which is why a fiery older person might be described as having “a nature like ginger and cassia”. As ginger dries, its chemical composition also changes, and its lemony freshness yields to the strong, peppery heat characteristic of European ginger wines and gingerbreads.
Echoing the ancient Greeks and Romans with their humoral medicine, the Chinese consider ginger to be a warming spice that drives out both cold and dampness, which is why people in the humid south not only grow it but rely on it to maintain their physical equilibrium. In traditional Chinese medicine, ginger is used to ward off coughs and colds, aid digestion and treat nausea and rheumatism. Women drink ginger tea sweetened with brown sugar to relieve menstrual cramps. New mothers are often fed stewed pigs’ trotters with ginger and vinegar to help them regain their strength.
Ginger is mostly grown in southern China, but there has always been a hunger for it in the north. Dried ginger was sent in tribute to the imperial court during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). Later it was transported to Beijing on barges along the Grand Canal. In ginger-growing regions, the crisp, young rhizomes have their own culinary uses. They may be pickled and eaten as a relish, or treated like a vegetable and cooked with meat or poultry. In Chengdu, strips of tea-smoked duck are stir-fried with long shards of ginger, while people in Zhejiang like to stir-fry it with a young chicken, chopped on the bone. For more than a thousand years, sweet preserved ginger has been produced in the Jiangnan region.
Most commonly, of course, ginger is used as an aromatic. Raw and finely chopped, it gives a scintillating zing to dips for Cantonese poached chicken and Sichuanese “ginger juice” dressings for cold meats and green vegetables. Because of its medicinal “warming” qualities, ginger is an essential condiment for “cold” ingredients, which is why you’ll always find it stirred into the rice vinegar used for dipping steamed crabs in the Jiangnan region. Northerners like to add dried plums and ginger to Shaoxing wine to warm it up for winter drinking.
The Chinese seldom pound ginger with other herbs and spices to make seasoning pastes, as they do in India and other parts of Asia. Instead, it is typically peeled and sliced or chopped, before being stir-fried with other aromatics at the start of cooking. Whole nuggets, crushed, may be added to stews or marinades.
Ginger is an essential ingredient in Sichuanese dishes such as Gong Bao chicken and fish-fragrant aubergines, where its spiky heat, mellowed by cooking, marries beautifully with the sweet intensity of garlic and the pungency of spring onions. The Cantonese often pair ginger with spring onions when they steam fish or stir-fry crabs or lobsters. Few vegetable dishes are more glorious than Cantonese gai lan (Chinese broccoli) stir-fried with a shimmer of rice wine and sparks of ginger.
One of the strangest modern western misconceptions about the use of spices is that they were used in medieval times to mask the taste of putrid meat, an assertion that appears in many sources. This was always unlikely, not least because rotten meat, however it tastes, is dangerous to eat, but also because, as Andrew Dalby points out, spices were a luxury available only to those who could afford good food. Moreover, no historical recipes recommend using spices to conceal rotten flavours. But why would this weird assertion have taken root?
The answer may lie in another vital function of ginger and other aromatics in Chinese cuisine: the purification of less appealing aspects of fishy and meaty flavours. In his famous culinary disquisition of the third century BC, the chef Yi Yin explained that water-dwelling creatures had a fishy (xing) taste, while carnivores tasted gamy (sao) and herbivores muttony (shan). One of the jobs of the cook was to subdue these unpleasant tastes and bring out the finer qualities of the ingredients. Some 2,300 years later, the same approach, incredibly, is part of any modern Chinese culinary education.
When I was at cooking school in China in the 1990s, my classmates and I learnt how to smooth over the rough edges of the flavours of animal ingredients. It wasn’t that our ingredients weren’t fresh — sometimes they were so fresh they were alive when we started cooking — but to Chinese palates, virtually all animal ingredients had inherent deficiencies that needed to be treated. To this end, we would blanch raw meats in boiling water; add ginger and spring onion to our stocks and stews; use rice wine, ginger and spring onion in marinades.
At first, to a westerner like me, such practices seemed abstruse, but over time I learnt that they make an enormous difference to the flavour of any finished dish. Stocks taste finer with the addition of a little crushed ginger and spring onion, offal cleaner after a rice-wine marinade. Ginger was one of the key ingredients in our purifying arsenal: as one Chinese culinary encyclopedia puts it, the spice is used not just to create flavours (tiao wei), but also to correct flavours (jiao wei).
The use of spices and aromatics to dispel off-putting tastes in animal ingredients is found in numerous eastern culinary traditions. The Indian food expert Krishnendu Ray says that the women in his family all use the term bhotka to mean raw, gamy, excessively meaty tastes — which they then tame by marinating in salt, turmeric, ginger and other ingredients “to cover that smell” (a similar term, ashte, is used for excessively “fishy” tastes in fish). The food writer Anissa Helou, an expert in Middle Eastern cooking, points out that the Arab concept of zankha — a funky taste found particularly in poultry — may be similar to the Chinese examples. In all these cases, spices are used not to mask rotten tastes, but as a corrective to the naturally edgy aspects of meaty flavours. Given that spices originally came to Europe from Asia, did they come along with advice about their traditional culinary applications? Did that discredited trope that spices were used to mask the taste of tainted meat stem from a misunderstanding of these common Asian culinary practices?
Only comparatively recently has the import of fresh or “green” ginger offered Europeans a glimpse of some of the glittering possibilities of the plant as used in Asia. In the past, dried spices were imported from distant lands and incorporated into local culinary traditions, producing dishes such as swan pie, sweet biscuits and ales scented with ginger. Now, the culinary cultures that pioneered the use of spices have themselves taken root in the west, and the invigorating scent and taste of fresh ginger springs from Sichuanese salads and Indian and Thai curries as well as gingerbread. Ginger has been freed from its sweet shackles and appears, once again, in a medieval variety of dishes.
On the farm in Zhejiang in that pre-pandemic autumn, Zhu Yinfeng led me back to the kitchen, his bamboo basket now full of produce, and began to prepare lunch. Some of the beautiful ginger he’d dug was washed, a nugget smacked and added to a fish marinade, another piece finely chopped to be used in braised and stir-fried dishes. And now, back in London, on a cold grey day, I’m drinking my ginger tea as I sneeze and cough, taking a winter medicine that links me to the ancient Greeks and Romans, the modern Chinese and everyone in between, savouring the peppery taste of a yellow root that has, since prehistoric times, crossed continents, driven trade and kindled culinary excitement.
Fuchsia Dunlop’s latest book is “The Food of Sichuan”
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