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by Eva Koveos

Sauces, Seasonings, and Spices

Winter Volume: 1995 Issue: 2(4) page(s): 12 and 13

A native of tropical Asia, ginger (also known as ginger root) is one of the oldest seasoning items used in and certainly indispensable to Chinese cooking. Its name is derived from a Sanskrit word sringavera or horn-root. This flattened knobby root is not a root at all but technically it is a rhizome called Zingiber officinale, that when mature is tannish, when younger, tinged with purple. People who may not care for it refer to it as a knobby wonder with sharp pungent flavor, those who enjoy it in Chinese cuisine advise that eating it is a unique culinary experience. They know what good is!

Ginger has an interesting history. It was widely used in ancient China, and dates back to the sixth century BCE. It was introduced to the Mediterranean region some time before the first century CE, probably by Arabs travelling the Silk Road--an important trade route that carried spices, silk, and other luxuries from China to India and the Middle East. Of all the fresh seasoning items they carried, ginger traveled this long journey well. It was less perishable than many of the other spices and lasted for long periods of time.

Actually, most Asian people prefer ginger in the fresh form. It intensifies the flavor of their dishes. The dried ground ginger is not an acceptable substitute to them because it is not as hot nor is it as aromatic as fresh ginger. In actual fact, dried ground ginger will completely alter the taste of any dish, and thus this ground form is not recommended in Chinese cookery.

The Chinese use ginger in a number of ways. Mature, it has a characteristic light-golden brown color and a thin skin. It is used in soups and stews, in marinades, pickled in vinegar for sweet and sour dressings, and when preserved it can be added to sweet syrups to provide a special 'tang.' Perhaps its most famous use in Chinese cuisine is to flavor the oil in stir-fried dishes.

Ginger with a pinkish, soft skin, also referred to as 'young ginger' has a sharper flavor. It can be used in stir-fried dishes, too, but you may be most familiar with it pickled in a vinegar mixture and served with duck eggs. No Hong Kong restaurant these days, starts a meal without this appetite stimulant. Ginger can also be at its best when soaked for a few moments in coarse salt and then mixed into a meat dish.

Ginger has a long history not only in food, but also for medicinal use in China and other parts of the world. Traditionally, it has been used to remedy colds and coughs, aid in digestion, and prevent motion sickness. It was also used by Chinese sailors in the fifth century on long sea voyages to prevent scurvy, which is paradoxical because it is not a major source of Vitamin C, the nutrient needed to cure this vitamin-deficiency disease. In ancient times in Western Europe, Dioscorides, a Greek physician, used ginger as an antidote to poisons. Modern medicine is researching its antioxidant properties to determine if it has a functional role in heart disease and cancer.

Ginger, once a 'foreigner' to the United States, was the first Oriental spice introduced to the New World. However, people in this country most often include it in their cooking in its ground form, particularly in their baked products. The use of fresh ginger is a foreign concept for many, even for some accomplished cooks. They are baffled and do not know how to use it, maybe because the intense flavor can take time to become accustomed to. However, times are changing. Ginger is becoming increasingly familiar. Is it because of the vast array of Chinese fast food restaurants and other types of Asian cuisines and the fact that Western cooks are in to pan-Asian cuisine? At these new-age restaurants, people taste the 'aromatic' or 'perfume' flavor, and though a few are repulsed by its sharp and pungent flavor, most want to know what it is so that they can add it in their own cooking.

Ginger, this new old food seasoning, is easy to find because it is now available in most supermarkets. Buy yours fresh and firm, be it called shoga in a Japanese market, khing in a Thai one, or jeung in one frequented by Chinese from Guangzhou. Be sure it is heavy and hardly wrinkled, and that it is very knobby and not in elongated sections. To do otherwise means buying some that is aged and full of fibers; perhaps fine for grating but less so for matchstick cutting preferred in Chinese dishes. Should you purchase too much, store it wrapped in a paper towel in your refrigerator's vegetable bin or peel it and store it in dry sherry, or even bury it for future use in a pot of very sandy soil. But for heavens sake, do not freeze it unless you do not like its texture; defrosted it easily turns soft and mushy.

The editor of this magazine, who incidentally is my professor, told me that her favorite recipe for ginger is to use 'young ginger;' that is the root in spring tinged with purple. She loves it in a recipe found in An Encyclopedia of Chinese Cooking by the Changs and Kutschers (c 1970 and published by Crown Publishers). They do not recommend using young ginger, but she says this recipe is terrific with it. Try her variation, included below. Matter of fact, try it twice, once with mature ginger and once with the younger one, mostly available in springtime, and you tell us which you prefer.
Beef with Young Ginger
1/2 cup of young ginger slices
6 Tablespoons coarse (kosher) salt
4 Tablespoons oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 pound of flank steak, sliced thinly into one- by one-quarter- by one-quarter-inch strips
2 Tablespoons light soy sauce
2 Tablespoons dry sherry
2 teaspoons sugar
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 cup chicken stock
2 Tablespoons dark soy sauce
3 scallions, sliced thin
1. Mix ginger and salt and let stand for ten or fifteen minutes. Rinse thoroughly in cold water and drain.
2. Heat two Tablespoons of the oil and fry the garlic for one minute. Ten add the meat and fry until just pink. Remove from the pan and set aside.
3. Add the rest of the oil and fry the ginger root for two to three minutes; do not let it brown.
4. Mix the rest of the ingredients, except the scallions, and add this mixture and the meat to the pan; stir until thickened.
5. Serve garnished with the scallions.
Note: To modify this recipe in order to lower the amount of sodium:
1. Decrease the coarse salt to three tablespoons, which will allow only half-teaspoon of salt to be absorbed.
2. Use only a low sodium (low salt) soy sauce and not the kinds called for in the recipe and in addition, delete the total amount of soy sauce from four to three tablespoons in total.

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