From charmingly sweet to decidedly pungent and spicy, ginger is as versatile as its appearance is unassuming. Its unique flavor profile of lemony-citrus and warm earthy notes has made it a hallmark for a wide range of dishes, including Caribbean, Indian, and Asian cuisine – and of course, traditional holiday baked goods, seasonal beverages, and preserves. Is it any wonder ginger is our flavor of the month?
Why We Love Ginger
Ginger is our go-to flavor for adding nuance and warmth in all kinds of flavor systems. From sweet pumpkin pie lattes to calming green teas and tangy teriyaki sauces, ginger provides earthy flavor notes (grounding), sharp nasal pungency (energizing), and mild to moderate palate heat (comforting). This broad range of sensory profiles helps stabilize and balance other flavors in a blend, creating harmony and adding rich layers of complexity.
Used liberally, ginger is bold and characterizing – just the profile a developer needs to convey natural intensity and power in an energy shot or detox tea. Handled with artful discretion, ginger is the “secret spice” in the most orchestrated of custom flavors, providing a “je ne sais quoi” that is easy to love…but difficult to duplicate. Whether the star of the show or a supporting cast member, ginger is a humble root with an unforgettable impact.
The first thing you’ll notice when tasting fresh ginger is that it’s extremely pungent. This is a result of a compound called gingerol, which is related to capsaicin and piperine. These two compounds are responsible for the spiciness of chili peppers and black pepper, respectively. However, as ginger is cooked, the gingerol is transformed into a different compound: zingerone. Zingorone still retains the spicy, bright flavor we associate with ginger, but it’s warmer and less pungent. Although ground ginger is more concentrated than the fresh rhizome, it has less of a bite, making it preferable for use in baked goods.
Due to its long history in the global spice trade, and subsequent incorporation into global cuisine, ginger flavor has universal appeal. Beef teriyaki, pumpkin pie, tom kha gai (Thai chicken and coconut soup), and chai tea are all regionally popular recipes that gained worldwide appeal – and all feature ginger as a primary flavor. Even with its widespread acceptance, it’s important to note that the type and quantity of ginger used in a formulation can be quite polarizing. Consumers have a broad range of both sensitivity to and appreciation for chemesthesis (the tingling or burning sensation that accompanies chemical irritation of the oral and nasal cavities, such as the heat from chile peppers), and therefore care must be taken when incorporating ginger in a product so as not to alienate your target consumer.
That said, ginger is an amazing spice that plays VERY well with others! The breadth of its flavor compatibility is pretty impressive. Check out the infographic below for a selection of flavor categories that – alone or in combination – pair perfectly with ginger.
Where Does Ginger Come From?
Ginger is indigenous to China, India, and other tropical regions. It no longer exists in its wild state, making it a true “cultigen,” which is essentially a domesticated plant. The earliest evidence of ginger’s selective cultivation is among the ancient Austronesian people, approximately 5,000 years ago. It was a crucial crop for them, used for everything from food and medicine to weaving materials and religious purposes.
Today, the top exporters of ginger include China, Brazil, and Thailand. There are several varieties of ginger, but the one many of us are most familiar with comes from the perennial plant Zingiber officinale, also known as “common ginger” or “garden ginger”. It’s a close relative to cardamom, which perhaps should come as no surprise, considering they’re often used together in recipes and share a similar flavor versatility. It’s also closely related to turmeric. Each ginger plant can grow up to three feet high and can produce 2-5 sections, or “hands,” of thick, knobby rhizomes (often mistakenly called “roots”) that can be harvested throughout the year.
From Confucius to the Colonies
Ginger has a long, rich history among cultures around the world, having been used for culinary and medicinal purposes for thousands of years. In India and China, the rhizomes were traditionally used in a tonic to treat a wide variety of common ailments. The ancient Chinese philosopher, Confucius, was known to eat a small amount of ginger before every meal, and praised it for its digestive and healing powers. By the 1st century, the word had spread about the inconspicuous rhizome, as traders brought it into the Mediterranean regions.
Ginger eventually became a popular spice in Rome, however, its use declined as the Roman Empire fell. It was forgotten in Europe for centuries until it was rediscovered when Marco Polo brought it back from his travels to the East. The Crusades also played a large part in the spice becoming more widely used in Europe, as the Crusaders ventured to far off lands, only to return home with exotic spices from the foreign trade centers. Ginger became known as the “grains of Paradise” and the Atare pepper; with its spicy flavor, it was often used as a substitute for the more expensive black pepper.
By the 13th century, ginger was widely appreciated in the spice trade and its worth had greatly increased. As with all imported goods at the time, only the most wealthy could afford it – a pound of ginger was worth the price of a whole sheep! Spices like ginger were used in food preparation, but it was also common to pass around a “spice platter” that held additional spices to add to meals, much like how many of us add salt and pepper to our meals today. Members of the royal family and nobility would often follow their meal with a wine spiced with ginger to aid digestion.
It was during the Middle Ages that ginger became a popular ingredient for sweet delicacies, like cakes and bread. Gingerbread originated around the 14th century, although it was more of a sugary confection than the cake-like variety that’s common today. According to medieval historian Bruno Laurioux, ginger was found in approximately one-quarter of all medieval French and English recipes, however, it was used far less frequently in Italian and Spanish cuisine. There were at least three varieties of ginger used culinary in the Middle Ages, including the common garden ginger we all know and love.
As the British Empire grew and expanded into new territories, ginger went with it. The spice was introduced in Jamaica around 1525, where it quickly became established as a successful export. British colonists (in what would later become America) used it and other spices abundantly in their recipes, making ginger a characteristic flavor in traditional American cooking.
The Health Benefits of Ginger
Although ginger is prized for its unique peppery, sweet flavor and spicy aroma, it’s worth noting that it’s been widely viewed as medicinal for thousands of years. The most common use across cultures has been for relieving various digestive issues and nausea, as well as to help stimulate or improve digestion. Modern science has shown that many types of folk medicine using ginger may have some validity – and there’s evidence that along with gastrointestinal issues, ginger also aids in relieving pain and inflammation, supporting cardiovascular health, and may even lower the risk of cancer.
Ginger is great any time of year, but as the holidays approach and the weather cools down, this popular flavor inspires feelings of comfort and warmth. Here are three fun ways to add ginger, in its various forms, to your diet this winter:
As an incredibly versatile spice, you’ll find ginger in a wide array of savory dishes, spice blends, sauces, desserts, marinades, pickled vegetables, curries, condiments, and drinks. The uses are so widely varied that it’s virtually impossible to list them all!Looking to add some spice to your products? Blue Pacific offers the finest certified organic and natural ginger food and beverage flavors.
Request a sample today!