Sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami (a savoury/meatiness) are the primary colours of the culinary world. These five basic tastes provide the building blocks that, when combined, can create a rainbow of gustatory pleasures.
Like with every rule there must be exceptions and ginger, a rhizome or root cluster from the plant zingiber officinale, is one of these anomalies. A member of the same family as turmeric and cardamom, in the flavour stakes ginger is more likely to be coupled with chilli and horseradish; foods that emit a heat or spiciness in the mouth.
Science tells us that this pungency (a description used to avoid the ambiguity of words such as hot or spicy) is conveyed to the brain by sensory fibres in the mouth (as opposed to taste buds). These fibres can also be found in parts of the body with no taste receptors, such as the nasal passage and open wounds.
Thought to have originated in South East Asia, ginger has been revered since Roman times. One of the champions of the spice trade, it was originally put on a pedestal for its medicinal traits. To this day ginger is used to aid digestion, as an anti-inflammatory and as a stimulant.
In Medieval Europe the clean, slightly citrusy heat of ginger found its way into the kitchens of the upper classes, and was used to disguise the heavily salted meats and fish. The Escoffiers of the 14th century were making spicy dipping sauces of ginger, cardamom, saffron and cinnamon and even the finest roast was accompanied (or disguised) by a pungent sauce.
Used sparingly and with a deft hand it adds a soothing, clean element that lifts and enhances flavours. Take for example its role in Japanese cuisine, where the finely sliced, pickled ginger is used as a palate cleanser. Eaten between nigiri, the ginger allows the taste buds to reset and thus appreciate the variances in flavour between the different fish.
A star ingredient in Chinese, South-East Asian and Indian dishes, ginger will be found in stir-fries, soups, relishes and chutneys. Whether fresh, dried, sliced, ground into a paste or grated, ginger lifts beef, chicken, seafood and vegetable dishes.
In modern Europe ginger has largely been relegated to the domain of the pastry or dessert chef. Its earthiness is celebrated in sweets such as gingerbread or you may find it candied with sugar as a sweetmeat. Its gentle warmth is found in beverages including ginger beer and ginger tea.
In some Asian countries pungency is treated as a primary taste and the balance a little heat brings to a dish is considered intrinsic to cooking. Whether you err on the side of science or art in the kitchen, there is no denying the pleasure that ginger’s clean, earthy warmth can bring to a dish. Add it your palette (or palate) this month.
Ginger loves: beef, pumpkin, cabbage, chilli, chocolate, orange, cinnamon, raw fish, lime, rhubarb, tomato, seafood, Asian greens, chicken, pork, soy sauce
Select and store:
The first ginger harvest is in February, this crop is more delicate in flavour and is crisp rather than fibrous. It has a soft skin, similar to a new potato. The second crop is picked from May to August and is more pungent. Look for ginger that is smooth (not wrinkly) and firm. Store in the crisper. Ground ginger is made from dried ginger and should be purchased fresh (from somewhere with a good turn-over).
Peel 250g of fresh, young ginger, cut into knobs if necessary. Cover with 2 teaspoons of salt and leave for 24 hours. Combine 1 cup wine rice vinegar, 100ml water and ¼ cup sugar. Remove ginger from salt and immerse in the liquid. Leave covered in the fridge for at least a week before using. Use a mandolin to slice very finely before serving.
Cooking with ginger
Steam white fish over a little finely sliced ginger, or grate some ginger with a microplane into soy sauce with a couple of drops of sesame oil: marinate beef or chicken in this mixture before cooking or serve as a simple dipping sauce.
Great for the digestion, steep 4 – 6 slices of raw peeled garlic in a cup of boiling water for 5 – 7 minutes. Add lime juice and/or honey to taste.