Confucius, the ancient Chinese philosopher born in 551 BC, was something of a foodie. In his famous Analects, a collection of his sayings and ideas, he outlined some rules to eating that wouldn’t look out of place today.
Eat only at mealtimes, he advocated. Know the source of your food, eat meat in moderation, eat only food that is in season and do not drink to excess. All very modern.
In addition to these culinary rules, Confucius outlined his belief that ginger should be eaten at every meal – although not to excess, in case it overheated the body.
Along with spring onions and garlic, ginger is one of the most important and distinctive flavours used in Chinese cooking today. It is used widely throughout the country, but the two regional cuisines most associated with the spice are Cantonese, which uses ginger as more subtle seasoning in sauces, and Szechuan, which often has more robust flavours involving both ginger and garlic, such as hot-and-sour soup.
Ginger has been used for thousands of years, and when the legendary Venetian traveller Marco Polo made his famous journey to China in the thirteenth century, he found it growing in abundance in the country’s southwestern Szechuan province, noting: “This province produces such a vast quantity of ginger that it is exported throughout the whole of Cathay, bringing great profit.” Today, China produces around 20% of the world’s ginger – second only to India.
Originally native to Southeast Asia, ginger is part of the same family of plants as turmeric, cardamom and galangal. The root or rhizome of the plant sends up tall leafy stems about a metre high with leaves up to a foot long. At the end of the stems are small tight clusters of yellow-green and purple flowers.
When harvested, the plants are simply pulled from the ground and the rhizome cleaned and dried in the sun. Young rhizomes can be mild and juicy and are often pickled; older rhizomes tend to be more woody and fibrous and are often powdered and used as a flavouring. The spice can also be boiled to produce a tea that many claim settles upset stomachs, and the younger roots can be preserved in syrup as a delicate sweet.
Ginger has been carried all over the world. It first made its way west along the Silk Road, the trade route the stretched from China in the east through the Indian subcontinent, Persia, Arabia and into Europe, more than a thousand years ago. Having made its way west, ginger was introduced to East Africa by Arab traders and to West Africa by the Portuguese; English queen Elizabeth I is often said to have invented the gingerbread man in the sixteenth century. When the Spanish travelled west to explore the New World, they took it with them on their conquests to the West Indies and Mexico.
Although in the west ginger is largely considered a sweet spice used in desserts, biscuits and cakes, in China it tends to be used in savoury dishes paired with fish or meat. In traditional Chinese medicine, foods are either yin or yang, “cold” or “hot” (although this doesn’t suggest the actual temperature of food). Ginger is a yang, “hot” food, and can be teamed with cooling foods to produce harmony on the plate.
It has also been used as a medicinal herb for centuries. Considered a symbol of purity, ginger was often provided to women who had just given birth to help restore their energy, and was even believed to help cure certain ailments. No wonder there’s an old Chinese saying that runs: “Turnip in winter and ginger in summer keep the doctor away.”