If any one particular flavor is responsible for the increasing popularity of Eastern cuisine in the US, it just might be ginger. The pungent, aromatic root—even in the smallest quantities—adds an intriguing aroma and subtle heat to any entree, sauce, dressing, dessert or side dish, with or without chopsticks.
No one is sure where ginger originated, or how old it is, because it has never been found growing wild. It is thought that the Chinese and Indians were the earliest cultivators of ginger, the word dating back to Indian Sanskrit meaning “antlers,” which the dried root resembles. Throughout the Middle Ages, ginger was valued as highly as black pepper. Its popularity in Western cultures began with gingerbread and biscuits, and dried and ground ginger was provided as a condiment to bar patrons to sprinkle on their beer (which later led to the development of ginger beer).
This tuberous rhizome, or root, of a yellow-flowered perennial is available fresh, dried, ground, preserved and crystallized. But widespread availability of the fresh product, and the increased popularity of pungent Eastern flavors and aromas, has influenced modern chefs to use the fresh root in just about everything.
Green ginger, or fresh ginger, is essential in Asian and Indian cuisines, and is a dynamic, quickly growing element on American menus. The thick, knobby roots vary in size, shape and color, but generally speaking, pale, buff-colored varieties are the best quality.
Dried gingerroot is commonly ground into a powder, and is considered an entirely different spice from the fresh specimen. Ground ginger retains some of the flavor and fire (and aroma) of the fresh root, but is often blended with other varieties, producing a musty taste. However, ground ginger works best in baked goods, such as gingerbread, cakes, scones and muffins.
Preserved ginger is thinly sliced young ginger (about six months old and far less fibrous than the typical nine-month-old fresh varieties) preserved in a syrup. Often used as a condiment with sushi, its concentrated, sharp flavor is valued for cleansing the palate and enhancing eye-appeal. But why limit it to sushi? Chefs are using the pretty, salmon-colored condiment to infuse dishes with a fresh, clean Asian accent.
Crystallized or candied ginger is considered a confection, not a spice. It can be used in a variety of applications to add flavor and depth. The young ginger is steeped in a sugar syrup, dried and dusted with sugar, creating a tender, sweet and subtly spicy treat. Use crystallized ginger like other candied fruits: chopped in baked goods such as scones, muffins and quickbreads, or as an addition to fruit crumbles or tarts, in which the confection will dissolve during baking. Candied ginger also can be used as an ingredient in ice cream and other desserts, to give a foil to typically sweet dishes.