In the bleak midwinter, nothing is guaranteed to lift the spirits, tickle the tastebuds and warm the cockles quite like a dose of ginger. It’s hard to think of any other single ingredient that has equal power to zing up an aperitif, sing out in carrot or beetroot soup, add punch to beef stew, aromatic Oriental intrigue to seafood and depth to a curry – let alone infuse crisp biscuits, winter spice cakes and festive chocolates with a deep, fragrant heat.
The culinary possibilities are endless, whether grating the fresh root to extract the zesty juice, drying and powdering it to concentrate the heat, dousing chunks in syrup, crystallising them in sugar or enrobing them in chocolate to create an exotic sweet treat. No wonder China’s great spice treasure has found its way into every one of the planet’s great cuisines.
“Fresh root ginger is the chameleon of the culinary world,” says Max Clark, of Leiths cookery school. “There are few ingredients that play such an integral part in the kitchens of so many diverse cultures. It’s pretty standard as a base ingredient for pastes in Indian, Middle Eastern and Caribbean cookery, while pieces of the root are added to clear broths in Thailand and China, pickled to accompany sushi and sashimi in Japan and the Greeks, French and Americans all make their own different drinks with it.”
Here in Britain, the Romans were gingering up their food 1500 years before Elizabeth I created the world’s first gingerbread man. No doubt she was celebrating the return to our shores of the long-vanished spice, courtesy of Marco Polo and the wily East India Company traders who smuggled cuttings of the precious plant into the subcontinent.
“It’s the one ingredient which is universally used in India from north to south, east to west, pounded with garlic into a marinade to deodorise the natural flavour of strong meat such as lamb and provide a blank canvas for other spices,” says Vivek Singh, of the Cinnamon Club. “Nothing goes into a tandoor without being rubbed with ginger and garlic paste.”
But he regrets that only those who grow their own in the spice gardens of Kerala get to enjoy the fragrant dash chopped ginger leaves add to a stir-fried potato curry: “They’re not harvested commercially, just an extra delight for the people who grow ginger mainly for its gorgeous flowers.”
The rest of us must content ourselves with a highly versatile, if unbeautiful, knobbly root, a pound of which once commanded the same price as a live sheep. Today, thanks to the Chinese, it’s as cheap as chips – you can spice up a soup and have plenty left over for a tandoori paste for lamb or chicken and a seasoning broth for scallops from a knob costing less than 30p.
“Ginger has come down to about £2 per kilo, a third the price of when we had to import it from Hawaii or Brazil when I joined the company 17 years ago,” says Jayesh Dodhia, of Wealmoor, the largest supplier of fresh ginger to the British market. And there is good reason we think of ginger as a winter spice, he says: “Chinese, which is on sale now and will run through into the new year, is less stringy than the Thai and Brazilian which take over in June and July.”
Ginger is a growth market in Britain, as chefs discover ever more uses for a spice long known to have a special affinity with rhubarb and pears: “Fresh ginger also works with pineapple, orange and lime because of its citrussy quality,” says David Everett-Matthias, of the two-Michelin-starred Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham. He also puts it to more unexpected uses: “It’s wonderful grated into a ras-el- hanout for a Moroccan split-pea velouté topped with coconut milk foam.”
To get the most out of ginger, he likes to layer multiple forms into the same dish: “I use powdered as well as fresh ginger in a warm treacle and spice cake because the dry form has more perfume than the citrussy root, and can bring real depth to baking. I also add candied stem ginger; it’s by far the nicest way to enjoy the texture in a piece of whole root.” When grating, he recommends a microplane to get the necessary mush with minimum fibre; chefs who slice the root, such as American patissiere supreme Nancy Silverton, recommend blanching it first to eliminate excessive bite.
Another starred chef with unalloyed admiration for ginger is William Drabble, of Seven Park Place at the St James’s Hotel and Club. Having paired foie gras with roasted pear and ginger syrup for the festive season, he will lighten up January by sandwiching wafer-thin slices of salmon with pickled ginger and making an apple and ginger juice for lime parfait.
Juiced ginger is available as a new year detox shot at the Juice Bar in London’s Maltby Street Market, or mixed with with apple juice by Cawston Press, which also makes an apple-ginger beer. Ginger beer is an essential ingredient for the classic winter cocktail Moscow Mule, to which extra oomph can be added with a shot of The King’s Ginger liqueur, created by Berry Brothers to revivify Edward VII during morning rides in his horseless carriage. But you don’t need booze to enjoy the restorative properties of ginger – if you can’t afford to indulge in the superb mix of black tea and Sri Lankan dried ginger from the modern East India Company, just drop a 10p chunk of root into a mug of hot water and see how quickly it perks you up.
Great ginger recipes
Gregg Wallace’s carrot and ginger soup
450g of young carrots are sweated with an onion, a celery stalk and 2 small potatoes in oil and butter, then seasoned with 2 tablespoons of grated fresh ginger and a teaspoon of ground ginger before adding a litre of stock and 200ml of milk.
Full recipe in Veg: The Cookbook (Mitchell Beazley)
Tom Kerridge’s shin of beef with ginger
The chef of the two-Michelin- star Hand and Flowers at Marlow marinates six 225g pieces of shin in a bottle of red wine for 24 hours. He dries and sears the meat, and places on top of a mirepoix of stock vegetables mixed with 75-100g of root ginger, grated but not peeled.
The boiled and skimmed marinade is added, along with 1.5 litres of veal stock, a bunch of thyme and 3 teaspoons of sea salt.
After braising for two-and- a-half hours at 180C, the shins are removed and the stock is reduced and sieved to make a rich, unctuous sauce for the meat.
Nancy Silverton's pear and ginger brown butter tart
In this gingeriest pudding on the planet, ginger appears in the pastry, the poaching syrup for the pears and a ginger brown butter filling. Both fresh and powdered ginger are copiously used.
Full recipe in Desserts by Nancy Silverton, Harper & Row