Food & Drink: Get fresh with old spice: If you want sprightly freshness, invigorating heat, and a hint of the exotic in your cooking, go back to your roots and add ginger

Lying in bed a few nights ago, pondering what to write about ginger, it occurred to me that, on the whole, it is not particularly gingery in colour. If you were to hold a ginger root, or a teaspoon of ground ginger, up against a mop of ginger hair, the similarity in hue would be far from marked. There is a hint of an orange glow there, but it hardly screams for attention. The only passably gingery form of ginger is preserved stem ginger in syrup, but even that often falls short.

The Oxford English Dictionary reveals that 'ginger' as a colour is a relatively modern phenomenon - dating, in print at any rate, only from the 18th century. Ginger as in the plant Zingiber officinale has a far more venerable history, with the first reference around 1,000 years ago. But we were distinctly late off the mark in discovering its allure: it was well known in ancient Greece, Egypt and Rome, and has been cultivated in Asia for at least 3,000 years, which makes it one of the oldest spices.

Ginger roots will sprout easily enough in a warm kitchen, but to grow and multiply they need a steamy tropical climate, which means that Europe has always had to import its supplies. That necessarily implied some form of preservation - usually drying or candying. Ground ginger has become part of the British repertoire of spices, as commonplace and unremarkable as cinnamon or nutmeg.

There is nothing remotely exotic about a slab of gingerbread or a bottle of ginger ale. Preserved ginger in syrup, a bulkier and more expensive way to import ginger, is a delightfully old-fashioned luxury with an air of sophistication. Fresh or green root ginger, on the other hand, is a thoroughly modern notion as far as the non-tropical cook is concerned.

It is also totally different in character, and I suppose one really ought to think of it as a new spice, rather than merely another form of an old stalwart. Instead of the cosy cottage warmth of powdered ginger, it has a sprightly freshness of flavour and an invigorating smack of heat.

Ginger is a creeping root, closely resembling the iris root, though not related in anything but form. I have read that it will produce beautiful yellow flowers with a purple lip, given the right conditions. However, should you discover a forgotten piece of ginger root sprouting green shoots in the smog of your kitchen, do not hold expectations of a flower - it is extremely unlikely to bloom. Instead, chop the shoots roughly and add to a salad where you will derive instant and assured benefit.

Although fresh ginger is widely sold these days, it is still strange enough for a few unscrupulous purveyors to get away with pushing substandard rhizomes. Fresh ginger should be firm from the first knobble to the very last, with not a bruise or soggy patch in sight. The skin, though not glossy, should be taut and blessed with a sheen of health. Old ginger, well past its sell-by date, will either be bruised, or drying and wrinkly; mould may sometimes make a warning appearance. Reject it and complain loudly.

Ginger is by nature knobbly, but I always try to pick out the plumpest and least knobbly piece - it makes peeling much easier and minimises waste. Most recipes will call for a specified length of ginger root - a rough measurement, but quite adequate, leaving you room for interpretation according to your own taste - but it is rarely more then a couple of inches. Unless you are passing through an obsessive fresh-ginger phase, you are unlikely to work through an entire lump while it is at its prime. The remainder will keep fairly well for several weeks, wrapped in newspaper or a brown-paper bag in the vegetable drawer of the fridge.

You can also preserve sliced fresh ginger in sherry or vinegar, but then you end up with something quite different. Though the ginger can be used, it will not taste at all right in oriental cooking. It is the gingered-up sherry or vinegar that is worth keeping. Use the sherry to flavour sauces - try a tot of it in a tomato sauce, for instance - or, with restraint, in crab dishes. The vinegar will pep up any salad dressing or mayonnaise.

Nuoc Mam Gung

A Vietnamese ginger dipping sauce, a simple recipe and a real joy if you have even the slightest liking for the flavours of the Far East. Gingery, sweet, hot, sharp and salty all at once. Try serving it with plainly grilled prawns or chicken. Once you have had a taste you will probably come up with 101 other ways to use it. The recipe comes from The Simple Art of Vietnamese Cooking by Binh Duong & Marcia Kiesel (Simon & Schuster). Fish sauce is sold by a few larger branches of enterprising supermarkets, and oriental food stores.

Makes about 4fl oz (110ml)

Ingredients: 2in (5cm) piece root ginger, peeled and finely chopped

2tbs sugar

2 small fresh red chillies, chopped, or 1/2-1 tsp dried chilli flakes

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1/2 small lime, peeled and sectioned

2tbs fish sauce

Preparation: Pound the ginger, sugar, chillies and garlic in a mortar to form a syrupy sauce. Add the lime sections and pound again, working them into the mixture. Finally work in the fish sauce. Serve at room temperature, either alongside rice or as a dipping sauce. It can be kept in an airtight jar for up to a week in the fridge.

Butaniku shoga-yaki

Fresh ginger juice is called for here, to spice up the marinade and sauce for a quickly fried dish of pork and vegetables. To extract the ginger juice, grate a large knob of ginger (no need to peel), then squeeze hard with your fingers. Mirin is a sweet rice wine, but sake or dry sherry and a little sugar make an acceptable substitute.

Serves 3-4

Ingredients: 1lb (450g) tender boneless lean pork

4oz (110g) beansprouts

1 large carrot, cut into matchsticks

2tbs vegetable oil

For the marinade:

3tbs sake or dry sherry

1 1/2 tbs mirin, or 1 more tbs sake or dry sherry, mixed with 1 tsp sugar

3tbs dark soy sauce

1tbs fresh ginger juice

Preparation: Slice the pork as thinly as you can - chilling it will make it easier. Mix all the marinade ingredients and pour over the pork. Turn to coat nicely, then leave for half an hour. Drain off marinade and reserve. Heat the oil in a wide frying pan over a high heat. Add half the pork and saute for about 1 minute, until all but cooked through. Scoop out and repeat with the remaining pork. Quickly return the first batch to the pan, along with the marinade. Bring to the boil, stirring so the meat is nicely coated. Scoop the meat out on to a plate and keep warm. Throw the beansprouts and carrots into the juices left in the pan, and stir for 1-2 minutes to heat through. Serve with the pork.

Laksa lemak

This Singapore coconut soup - or variants of it - has long been a favourite of mine. It is a meal-in-a-bowl sort of a soup, rich, fragrant and filling.

Once you have made the stock, which can be done in advance, the rest is quick and little bother, particularly if you use tinned coconut milk. Fresh coconut milk can be made either from a whole coconut or the desiccated kind. With a fresh coconut, break it open and extract the flesh, then grate. Process with enough hot water to cover, then strain, squeezing out milk. Repeat once. With desiccated coconut (make sure it has not been sweetened), process 12oz (340g) with 3/4 pint hot water, as for fresh coconut, and repeat with a further 1/4 pint or so of hot water.

Serves 4-6 as a main course

Ingredients: 1 chicken, cut into pieces

1lb (450g) raw prawns in shells

4tbs oil

14fl oz (400ml) coconut milk

6oz (170g) rice vermicelli

6oz (170g) beansprouts

6 spring onions, chopped

salt

For the spice blend:

3 stems lemon grass, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 1/2 in (4cm) fresh ginger, peeled and chopped

5 almonds

1/2 in (1cm) cube blachan or 3 anchovy

fillets

3 dried red chillies

1/2 tsp turmeric

1tsp ground coriander

1 onion, chopped

Preparation: Put chicken in a pan with enough water to cover well. Bring to boil and simmer for 45 minutes until chicken is cooked through. Remove and strip meat from bones. Shred meat and put bones back into stock. While chicken is cooking, shell and de-vein prawns. Add their shells to the stock, too. Keep it simmering for another 1/2 hour or so, then strain and measure out 1 pint (570ml).

Soak rice vermicelli in hot water for 5 minutes or so until soft. Drain and reserve. Now for the spice blend. Prepare lemon grass stalks. Use only the bottom 2 1/2 - 3n (6-7.5 cm), discarding the tough upper stem (or add to stock to intensify the flavour). Strip off the outer layer of leaf, then bash the stalk with a mallet or the back of a wooden spoon a couple of times. Chop.

Grind prepared lemon grass and the rest of spice blend ingredients to a paste. Fry in oil in a large pan, over a moderate heat, for about 3 minutes. Add measured stock and heat until warm, but not boiling. Stir in the coconut milk and bring to boil, stirring. Add prawns and simmer for a few minutes until just cooked through. Add chicken flesh, beansprouts, spring onions and salt. To serve, place some of the noodles in each bowl and ladle soup and bits over it.

Readers will be pleased to know that Sophie Grigson has a daughter. Florence was born on 11 January, and weighed 7lb 14oz (3,597g).

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