For about as long as I can remember I’ve had a liking for ginger (I don’t necessarily mean redheads, although I know and like several), but real ginger, that gnarly, esoteric looking root usually grouped with the exotic vegetables in the supermarket. It’s a rather unprepossessing article, the ginger root, but my fondness for it has grown exponentially over time as it reveals more of its secrets.
Not so Secret
Where do you start with something as versatile as ginger? Maybe with the humble ginger biscuit; if there’s anything that goes better with a cup of tea or coffee than that plain brown cookie I’ve yet to find it. Orange and ginger marmalade I love so much I have to ration myself to stop it becoming too commonplace and my taste for it jaded. Ginger beer, currently undergoing a popular revival in the UK is something I enjoy even more now than I did as a schoolboy when it was often a lifesaver on a hot summer’s day. Even those funny little chunks of ginger root preserved in syrup invariably find their way into my homemade curries and soups.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale), a native plant of tropical Asia was widely used by the Greeks and was originally brought to Western Europe by the Romans. Valued as flavoring and as a medicine, it is one of the oldest spices known to mankind. Many pre-industrial cultures, as the writer Stephen Fulder notes, recognised the potency of ginger and regarded it as a vehicle of magical force and power. Cultures in which it was available came to utilize ginger for its powerful medicinal and spiritual qualities.
Ayurveda, the oldest complete medical system in the world values ginger as a universal medicine, used to treat a wide variety of specific ailments and imbalances as well as being a general tonic. Western herbalists such as Nicholas Culpeper in the 17th century also came to appreciate ginger’s effectiveness in treating digestive problems, gout, and stiffness of the joints. In recent times botanist James A. Duke, in his authoritative book The Green Pharmacy, lists more than 30 separate ailments, including arthritis, motion sickness, and even depression that can be successfully treated using ginger in one form or another.
More recently researchers at the Biological Sciences Department of King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia have published the results of research which concludes that ginger can be beneficial in the treatment of various forms of cancer, including breast cancer. The natural medicine resource website GreenMedInfo meanwhile, contains more than 80 articles and study results on the benefits of using ginger as a medicine to treat specific ailments and diseases.
As an essential oil ginger is used in aromatherapy to stimulate the circulation; warm the muscles and joints; clear the respiratory system of catarrh and congestion; rebalance the digestive system, and help against nausea and travel sickness, amongst other things. Its aphrodisiac qualities certainly shouldn’t go unmentioned either, especially in relation to the essential oil – it works.
Ginger’s other magical property – as a stimulating and refreshing hot or cold drink deserves special attention. Herbalist Stephen Harrod Buhner in his fascinating book Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers lists several traditional recipes for ginger beer, and describes how, before the introduction of lager beers, alcoholic ginger beers or ales outsold both hopped beers and cider in America. (Read Buhner to discover why you should avoid commercial lagers and hopped beers altogether). Me, I’m more than happy with the non-alcoholic kind and usually buy it on sight.
I make a simple ginger tea by steeping a heaped teaspoon of freshly grated ginger root per cup in boiling water, adding a wedge of fresh lemon and allowing it to stand for five minutes. Strained, then laced with honey, this is the best winter tonic I’ve ever come across, palpably stimulating blood circulation and leaving you and your innards with a feelgood glow. Because ginger has the remarkable quality of being not only warming to the chilled body but also deeply refreshing when you’re thirsty I usually save the remaining infusion for the next day. Mixed with some sparkling water and maybe a little brown sugar you have a fantastic thirst-quencher that makes commercial soft drinks taste like the sugary junk they are.
For me there are few things more life-affirming than the knowledge that something that grew deep in the earth not only tastes good and nourishes me but also has the power to restore balance or help heal me when I’m sick. So what’s not to like?
N.B. Just about all the literature warns against using ginger in cases of hypertension, gastric or peptic ulcers. Other contraindications include caution if using large quantities while pregnant, and the general use of care (small quantities) when using essential oils.