Ruling Rhizome

Hands of Ginger in a Thai Market

Helen of Troy may have been a great beauty, but spices have launched more ships. The world has pursued big, exotic flavors for almost as long as the world has eaten—and among big, exotic flavors, almost nothing surpasses Zingiber officinale, better known in English-speaking countries as ginger. Ginger was one of the “big three” spices (along with black pepper and cinnamon) for which everyone, for most of recorded history, wanted to get to the Far East.

Ginger has been enjoyed in its native tropical Asia (probably India and Malaysia) since the misty ages of prehistory. In fact, it has been cultivated there for so long that its wild forebear no longer exists.

The plant’s name has its ultimate origin in the Sanskrit word sringavera, which means “horn-root.” (Though it’s not a root at all, but rather a rhizome, or underground stem.) The evolution of the name, from sringavera to ginger, is actually easier to follow than some word histories—and as is true with so many foods, the names ginger has had give us some insight into this spice’s history. Sringavera became dzungebir in Persian and dzingiberi in Greek. In Latin, it turned into zingiber (hence its scientific name). Italian, Spanish, and French called (and call) it zenzero, gengibre, and gingembre, respectively. German gets a little farther afield with Ingwer, and Dutch offers gember. Old English was gingifer, which traced back pretty directly to the Latin.

The movements of the spice itself follow fairly closely the same route as its name. From India, where it has long been lavishly employed in the local cuisines, it was brought to Persia by Darius the Great in the fifth century BC. After that, it popped up in each succeeding important civilization. (Ginger’s large, flattish rhizomes, commonly called “hands” in today’s spice trade, shipped well, and were therefore a popular and important commodity of trade in ancient times, even when other things weren’t surviving the long trips from Asia to the Middle East and Europe.) Ginger was so popular in ancient Rome that the government counted on it for income—they taxed it so heavily that, despite being abundant, it was 15 times the cost of black pepper—but it still sold briskly.

Often, ginger was even more appreciated for its nutritional value or health benefits. A medical school founded in Salerno, Italy, during the Middle Ages published a health book that spoke highly of ginger, and though they touted its value as a digestive aid and brain stimulant, it was probably their belief that it was an aphrodisiac that caused its wild popularity throughout the medieval world. (Though some of the old beliefs have been discredited, the medicinal value of ginger is still held in high regard, even in Western medicine. It’s powerfully anti-inflammatory and is fairly dramatic at relieving nausea.)

When the Renaissance began, strong flavors went out the door in French cuisine, but the Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, Flemish, and Scandinavian countries still value it, primarily as sweets or in beverages, as they have done since the days of the Norman expansion. Of course, ginger has never lost its huge popularity in the East, appearing in everything from first course to last, and continues to grow in popularity worldwide, as varied cuisines that utilize it become more widely available.

© 2010, Cynthia Clampitt

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Filed under culinary history, Food, Geography, History, Language, Nutrition

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