Long before ginger was pickled and served alongside sushi and sashimi, it was a vital plant that played an important role in the lives and diets of ancient peoples in many parts of the world.
This fascinating plant has a role steeped in history, and it played an important part in early civilization and trade. There are few plants as valuable or as prized in the ancient world as the simple ginger root. The importance of ginger has not been lost on modern society either, as it is one of the most versatile spices in use today.
While the ginger plant’s exact origins are unknown— there is no record of ginger in the wild — it almost certainly originated in the country of India. In fact, the root word for ginger comes from the ancient Sanskrit smgaveram, meaning “horn root,”likely due to its craggy appearance.
There is indication that Indian and Chinese peoplesused ginger in food preparation and medicinal tonics as many as 5,000 years ago, and the Indian epic “Mahabarata,” likely written in the 4th century BCE, describes a stew prepared with ginger.
With the advent of trade routes from India through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, ginger was tenderly placed in pots and brought along for the journey. In this manner, ginger spread quickly to other parts of the world.
People of the ancient Roman empire coveted the plant for its medicinal properties. From here, ginger made its way to the rest of the European continent.
After the fall of the Roman empire, the people of the Arabian Peninsula controlled the trade of ginger and other spices. The Europeans continued to receive the ubiquitous spice, usually in a preserved form to be used in the preparation of candies. At one time during the middle centuries, a pound of ginger was worth as much as a whole sheep.
As traders continued to expand their routes, they introduced ginger to tropical countries on the eastern side of the African continent. By the 16th century, ginger had made its way to the Caribbean and parts of Central America. As the mighty ginger plant took root in its various new homes, a tradition of cultivation was born which continues today in tropical, humid locations around the world.
As is the case with many of the conveniences of modern life, ginger is available in many forms; it can be found fresh, dried, powdered, pickled, candied or preserved. When ginger is cultivated, the root, or rhizome, is harvested at different times during the plant’s growth cycle. The age of the root can have a direct impact on the root’s uses.
The younger roots have a thinner skin and a milderflavor; therefore they are used more often in preparations that utilize ginger in its fresh form. Older roots lend themselves perfectly to the pickling or preservation processes, and are also best when ground or powdered.
Ginger’s unique flavor can be found in various cuisines from all around the globe, but its most important use may be in the realm of modern herbal medications and treatments. Even ancient people valued its use as a digestive tonic, and modern science has brought that benefit directly into our homes. Ginger can be recommended for use in the treatment of a variety of ailments.
Ginger has strong anti-inflammatory properties
Studies have shown that ginger can aid in the reduction of pain and swelling for arthritis patients when taken orally, and it can also reduce pain when applied as a poultice or salve directly on the skin.
Ginger is renowned for its anti-nausea capabilities
It is used to treat motion sickness, morning sickness, and the symptoms associated with acid reflux. Ginger is also recommended to patients during chemotherapy, and is effective in alleviating the nausea associated with that treatment.
Whether you use ginger to flavor your curries, or in a therapeutic form, you are in the company of people spanning thousands of years and countless different cultures. As we move into an increasingly modern and hectic world, it can be nice to know that we still have a connection to the past, even if it takes the form of knobby, mildly funny looking little root called ginger.
About the Author:Jamie Reed is an amateur chef, a very enthusiastic gardener, and an avid drinker of ginger root tea.