Monday, November 14, 2005

Apple #125: Ginger

Something else my Australian friend and I talked about the other day was ginger.

Ginger root, available from Typical Dutch Stuff

I needed some for a soup I wanted to make; the recipe called for a little bit of gingerroot and all I could find at the store was a package with a whole bunch of roots in it. I said I hardly ever use ginger at all and it would have been a waste of money to buy that much ginger. She said she likes ginger a lot and that she'd like to teach more Americans to appreciate ginger.

She also said she once upon a time went to a "ginger factory" in Australia. I asked her how the plants grew, and she said she didn't see that part, just the part where they ground the ginger and also turned it into candy. Which she loves. She loves the candied ginger.
  • People call it gingerroot, although it's actually not a root. It's a rhizome, which is a plant stem with shoots above and roots below, and which is the reproductive part of the plant.
  • Ginger is one of the earliest spices introduced to Europe from the East. It's thought to have originated either in China or India.
  • Because the plant requires lots of moisture, it grows best in tropical climates. Today, it is grown commercially in China and India, and also East and West Africa, Japan, Brazil, Jamaica, Fiji and other parts of Southeast Asia, and Australia.
  • Even in places that have lots of rainfall, the growers sometimes also irrigate the crops, which then do even better with that extra water.
  • In Jamaica, which some people say produces the best ginger ever, crops are sown by two people. One person cuts the furrows and another person follows behind and drops in a hunk of root. You have to be careful not to plant them too far apart, or else weeds will sprout and choke the plants. With enough moisture, the plants will sprout in 5 to 10 days.
  • In some places like India, they plant other crops such as castor beans or gungo peas in between the ginger plants. (Now I'm going to have to find out what gungo peas are)
  • In Australia, ginger is grown by about 30 growers, and they make most of their income from processed rather than fresh ginger.

Ginger plants grown in a field, in Queensland
  • In Jamaica, the root is often first peeled, then dried in the sun. It is one of the few places that produces peeled/dried ginger, but this product is in danger of disappearing. Peeling ginger is a royal pain. It requires using a special knife with a narrow blade that allows you to mark the peel in between places where new rhizomes are sprouting. Then you have to carefully remove the thin peel in little bits where you've marked it. Most of the people who peel ginger in Jamaica today are elderly women, and fewer and fewer people know how to do it well, if at all.
  • If you want to grow ginger yourself, you can in your home. The keys are to make sure you give the plant lots of water, keep it warm, and harvest the roots from the new sprouts that shoot off from the main plant. For more specifics, see the instructions at eHow.

What your ginger plant might look like, if you grew one yourself (from Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages)
  • You also want to make sure you don't grow ornamental ginger, at least, not if you plan to eat it. There are over 1200 species of ornamental ginger, many of which actually flower. Some of them make flowers that look like little pink pineapples; some look like corn on the cob; and some look like baby pinecones that are yellow at the end and red at the base.
  • Candied, or crystallized, ginger is made by cutting the peeled roots into hunks or slices, then cooking them in sugar syrup and applying yet another, final coat of sugar. The result is a combination of a snappy, yet mellow flavor with definite sweetness from the sugar. If you want to make it yourself, try this one from Premier Systems

Crystallized ginger, as made by Holly Food Co., Ltd.

Sources
Growing Ginger in Jamaica
Ginger in Queensland, commercial production
eHow, How to Grow Ginger
Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages, Ginger (includes a discussion of the etymology of "ginger," a description of its flavor in various forms, and a catalog of how it is used in various cuisines)
Earthcare, Spices & Medicinals of the Ginger Family
The Great American Spice Company, Crystallized Ginger - Candied

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