Who arguably was the most popular woman who took that fateful three-hour trip on the S.S. Minnow? It definitely wasn’t Mrs. Lovey Howell. Some may say it was Mary Ann, though I believe because of that slinky evening gown, it was Ginger. That’s not the ginger I’ll be highlighting, however, but that fleshy rhizome of Zingiber officinale.
The culinary ginger is part of the Zingiberaceae family, which also includes turmeric, cardamom and galangal and is thought to have originated in Southeast Asia, spreading westward through Sri Lanka and India, eventually ending up in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. It also spread easterly throughout Polynesia, ending up in Hawai‘i. Though it’s used medicinally in some cultures, its main application is lending its pungent flavor to a wide variety of dishes or sometimes just as is in the case of pickled ginger (gari) and beni shoga (red pickled ginger).
The primary flavor and aroma of ginger comes from a couple of volatile oils in the form of gingerols, shogaols and zingerone, giving a flavor sensation and heat not unlike capsaicin, which is found in chili peppers. That’s why a little goes a long way. It’s a necessity in teriyaki sauces and marinades and though you may assume that due to its frequent appearance in Japanese cuisine that Japan is a top producer of ginger, it’s actually ninth worldwide, with India as first, producing more than about a third of the planet’s ginger, though the Motherland still produces more than 51,000 tons of ginger.
Basic Culinary Applications
For starters, using the rhizome as is either in the pickled form (gari or beni shoga) or simply mixed with a solitary partner like green onions for the classic Chinese ginger green onion sauce used on steamed chicken, is as basic as it gets. When my local farmer’s market has an abundance of fresh ginger, I’ll often purchase a bagful, and since they always sell green onions, I’ll make a batch of ginger green onion sauce right at home. The only other accoutrements needed are salt, white pepper and a food processor. And I don’t limit the sauce just to steamed chicken. I’ll also used it as the base sauce for an Asian-inspired pizza in place of the usual red sauce with additional Asian flavors like hoisin or black bean sauce topped with diced chicken or pork and plain mozzarella.
I also add ginger to bottled mayonnaise for a tasty sandwich spread either by smoking rakkyo (pickled scallions) and beni shoga, then mixing in a food processor with the mayonnaise, or simply adding some of my ginger green onion sauce to the mayonnaise. Other than creating a delicious sandwich spread, these ginger-based mayonnaise are also tasty on their own with potato chips!
My Go-To Ginger Sauce
I originally found this recipe in Bon Appetit magazine and modified it to my own taste, though I kept the original quantity of minced ginger, as its pungent flavor nicely balanced the earthy black beans and equally pungent minced garlic. I’ve also been known to flavor my cilantro with food so the fresh cilantro was raised from a simple garnish to a significant flavor component.
1 cup vegetable broth
2 tbsp shoyu
1 tbsp rice wine vinegar
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp corn starch
Mix all five ingredients into a smooth slurry and set aside
2 tbsp macadamia nut oil (or other vegetable oil)
2 tbsp fermented black beans, minced
2 tbsp fresh ginger, minced
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp chili-garlic sauce
1 bunch green onions (white and green part), thinly sliced
1 bunch cilantro, roughly chopped
Stir fry the black beans, ginger, garlic and chili sauce in oil for one to two minutes, then add the protein of your choice. I frequently add a block or two of firm (or extra firm) tofu though ground chicken, turkey breast or lean ground pork also works just as well. Once the proteins are cooked, add the liquid slurry to the pan and stir until it thickens (cornstarch needs to come to a boil to thicken) then add the sliced green onions and chopped cilantro, mix and remove from the heat to keep the pronounced herbal flavors at the forefront.
You can steep fresh ginger in vegetable oil then strain for ginger-flavored oil to finish dishes. However, whenever I steep fresh herbs in oil, I store the unused oil in the refrigerator. You can also infuse vodka with fresh ginger but I find that purchasing pre-flavored ginger liqueur — and there are quite a few brands on the market — is a lot simpler. There’s also a Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur created with fresh Vietnamese baby ginger, cognac and a host of other spices that makes great cocktails. This is my version of a pear and ginger martini that I first sampled many years ago at celebrity Chef Mourad Lahlou’s Aziza in San Francisco (which still hasn’t re-opened) which was one of the many libations meant to savor with dinner.
1 ounce pear vodka
1/2 ounce pear liqueur
1/2 ounce Canton ginger liqueur
1/2 ounce simple syrup
1 tsp of fresh lemon juice
Lemon twist for garnish
Simple syrup is made by dissolving sugar in an equal amount of water. For this cocktail, I steep the hot syrup with fresh ginger and pear slices for additional flavor. Add the first five ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with very cold ice (the type that sticks to your fingers). Cover and shake like there’s no tomorrow (the cocktail shaker, not yourself). Strain in a martini glass and garnish with the lemon twist.
The sweet pear flavor complements the sweet spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and clove while the tangy ginger flavor complements the earthier spices like coriander, cardamom and turmeric found in Moroccan cuisine at Aziza but there’s no reason they can’t balance the sweet and spicy flavors found in Asian cuisine.
The Mrs.’ favorite dessert — and that includes ALL desserts, not just ginger containing desserts — is gingerbread, and I found a triple ginger, gingerbread recipe years ago in Bon Appetit that uses ground ginger, candied ginger and fresh ginger. I can’t take any credit, nor can Bon Appetit as it was a request from a reader who sampled it at a Bed and Breakfast so e-mail me if you’re interested in the original recipe.
The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the University of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at email@example.com.