Ginger as Medicine and Food

—by Kate Wagner, HPC Member

The first scent that my daughter perceived when she made her way into this world was the warm, rich, woody aroma of ginger. Ginger root has anti-inflammatory properties, and ginger compresses are used by modern day midwives to ease the pain of childbirth. Many herbalists also use ginger to help treat health problems associated with inflammation, such as arthritis, bronchitis, and ulcerative colitis.

Ginger is also wonderful for warming up the body and fighting germs. It is high in vitamins A, B complex, and C as well as calcium, phosphorus, iron, sodium, potassium, and magnesium. Ginger root also contains many antioxidants. Traditional Chinese herbalists use ginger to expel cold and to restore depleted yang. It induces sweating, thereby expelling toxins.

The Chinese believe it stimulates and strengthens the stomach, and Western research has come to agree with this. In India ginger has also traditionally been used to treat “cold” conditions—nausea, cough, colic, heart palpitations, swelling, dyspepsia, and rheumatism. Most people think of ginger root as the first natural treatment for nausea. Ginger ale and ginger beer have been recommended as “stomach settlers” for generations in countries where these beverages are made. Although very effective against all forms of nausea, it is not recommended by health professionals for morning sickness associated with pregnancy, since ginger can stimulate uterine contractions.

No one is sure how old ginger is or where it came from, since it has never been found growing wild. Its history of use is culturally and geographically diverse. It was first cultivated in Asia, then used in the Roman Empire and in the European countries colonized by Rome. The forerunner of modern gingerbread was apparently an ancient Greek digestive aid. The Greeks would follow a big meal with a piece of ginger wrapped in bread. Over time, the ginger was incorporated into the bread.

When trade brought the spice to the rest of Europe, it became almost indispensable very quickly, and its use in confectionery was born. Here the Greek gingerbread evolved into a sugary cake that proved very popular. In the 19th century it was also common to keep a shaker of ginger on the counter in English pubs so that patrons could shake some into their drinks. This practice was the origin of ginger ale. The Spaniards took ginger to the Americas and to the West Indies, where it now grows profusely. Ginger is grown throughout the tropical areas of the world. In the United States, ginger is grown in Florida, Hawaii, and along the eastern coast of Texas.

Ginger’s flavor has a slightly hot and biting note. Ginger is popular in Asian cuisine, where it is used both fresh and dried. It can also be found crystallized, candied, preserved, and pickled.

In Western cuisine, ginger is traditionally restricted to sweet foods. Powdered dry ginger is used to add spiciness to gingerbread and other recipes. Powdered ginger tastes quite different from fresh ginger, and one cannot be substituted for the other. Fresh ginger root is easy to keep on hand for adding extra zing to recipes. Simply freeze the unpeeled ginger root in a resealable food storage plastic bag. To use, grate the frozen root and return the remaining piece to the freezer.