The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - The Telegraph Magazine
Why we should all keep fragrant, full-flavoured ginger close at hand, by award-winning Telegraph food writer Diana Henry
Ginger is one of the most welcome scents of autumn and winter. Ground, it goes into Yorkshire parkin and Christmas cake – in fact quite a few traditional British dishes need ginger – and then there’s those cute German gingerbread houses. My granny used to have an outsize storybook which you had to lay on the floor to study properly. The picture of the gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel was studded with sweets and had icing as thick as snow. I didn’t care about Hansel and Gretel – whatever happened to them? – I only had eyes for the house. I wanted to break off a chunk and eat it.
As it gets towards spring ginger seems lighter. You can make a refreshing ‘tea’ with sliced ginger root and lime, or add some, finely grated to a purée, to apple juice. You could almost classify ginger as two spices, the ground and the fresh forms are so different. Ground ginger is warmer and hotter – think about the tongue-tingling heat you get from a ginger snap – and is the form most often used in Moroccan dishes. Tagines don’t tend to have the kind of heat chillis do, it’s more a low hum. The ginger heat is bedded into the foundation of the dish, usually with other spices. Ground ginger seems like an older, more mature spice. It just relaxes and emits its warmth without making much effort. Ginger root is alive, young, full of fresh juice and behaves like an excited child.
Ground ginger was one of the first spices imported into the West and, for a long time, it was used in ways that would now surprise us. In British food writer Hannah Woolley’s 1670 book The Queene-like Closet, there’s a recipe for swan pie seasoned with ginger, salt and pepper. Preserved Chinese ginger in syrup was reaching Europe at around the same time. It must have seemed both exotic and luxurious, these translucent golden orbs that were sweet, firm and glossy. I always have a jar of it in the cupboard. I use it for sweet-savoury stuffings, in fact I make salmon baked in pastry with a filling of dried fruit, almonds, lemon and preserved ginger. It sounds odd, with its use of sweet and savoury, but in the 1600s it wouldn’t have been that unusual.
There is always fresh ginger root in my kitchen too. It’s part of the holy trinity of ginger, chilli and garlic that you need for many Asian dishes. I’m forever grating ginger to a purée – it’s easy with a citrus zester – or cutting it into matchsticks for stir-fries. At first sight root ginger isn’t beautiful – it’s beige and gnarly and comes in small hands – but pay attention to its skin. It’s like slub silk, smooth but dotted here and there with tiny knots.
Ginger root is a store-cupboard ingredient, even if it’s not stored in a cupboard, because with only a few other ingredients you can make supper: hot and sticky chicken thighs with soy, honey, garlic and ginger or – at the other end of the spectrum because it’s so plain and pure – a fillet of fish steamed with matchsticks of ginger, soy sauce, slivers of garlic and curls of chilli. In fact, I always have pickled ginger on hand too. You can make a rice bowl with raw fish, crumbled nori, soy, crispy vegetables and pickled ginger in 15 minutes.
In Britain, we gradually used ginger less and less and, when we did, mostly in cakes and puddings. But our love of Asian food has changed this. And I now use ginger root for sweet dishes more often than I use the ground form. An old-fashioned steamed ginger and rhubarb pudding is still a lovely thing, but simmer coins of ginger root in water, sugar and lime juice until syrupy and you have a bath for sliced mangoes, pineapple or segments of pink grapefruit. Hot sassy ginger, we love you in all your forms.