Believed to have been first recruited from the wild in southern China, ginger root (zingiber officinale) has become a world traveler. Despite its popular designation as a root, it is actually a pale silvery green to ivory brown rhizome shaped like a fleshy hand with pudgy fingers. It has an unforgettably zesty, citrusy fragrance, an herbal sweetness, and a piquant bite that have made it a signature of Chinese regional cuisines since ancient times. Ginger powder, perhaps because it is dry, is less pungent but has more prevalent citrus notes.

The characteristic flavor of ginger is derived from a nonvolatile resin called zingerone that contains hydroxyaryl compounds. The same compounds are found in turmeric and galangal, two relatives of ginger. Zingiberene, the primary component of the rhizome’s essential oil imparts the fragrance we identify as gingery, and cineol and citral provide the hints of citrus. Curcumene, zingiberol, linalool, cineol, and camphene are also present in varying degrees in different strains.

The first written Chinese record on ginger, dated c. 500 BCE, is attributed to Confucius, who reported in the Analects that he was never without ginger when he ate. This spice may have first entered global trade networks through an arc of harbors reaching from Zayton (Quanzhou) in China through Southeast Asian all the way to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Sometime after Confucius penned his observation, dried ginger was being traded from India to Arabia and then to Egypt. By the thirteenth century Arabian ships carried either the rhizomes or potted plants down the east coast of Africa as far as Zanzibar. Ginger was popular in Morocco and Andalusia by the sixth century, and it is now propagated in tropical and subtropical climes far beyond Asia.

I have seen freshly harvested ginger prominently featured on the bamboo tables of predawn fruit and fish markets in Denpasar, Bali; the Abay River in Ethiopia; and in the produce sections of Chinatown groceries in Honolulu and San Francisco. It has sailed across turbulent seas and climbed over snowy passes in the highest mountain ranges of Asia to find new homes.

Known as jiang in Chinese, ginger diffused southward along the Maritime Silk Roads via Champa traders from present-day Vietnam and Tamil traders from Ceylon and southern India. By the time the rhizomes reached the Indian subcontinent, they became known as shrinagavera in Sanskrit and singivera in several Indic languages; it has been speculated that these terms are derived from the Old Greek zingiberis. At the same time, Turkic-speakers such as Uighur, who called it sansabil, aided its spread acorss Central Asia to Persia and the Middle East. Many of the terms used to label ginger may be cognates of this Turkic term, including zanjabil in Farsi, zanjabil in Arabic, and sangvil in Hebrew. (Although ginger is not mentioned in the Jewish Talmud or in the Christian Gospels, it does appear in at least one sura in the Qur’an.) The names for ginger in many European languages are ultimately derived from these same roots, including the Latin zingiber and the Modern Greek dzindzer. It is not surprising that the scientific name for the family that includes ginger, galangal, turmeric, and other spices became Zingiberaceae.

Ginger is often deployed in combination with other fiery spices, as in Chinese five-spice powder and Indian curry powders. In the West, fresh ginger is considered so potent that it is usually finely chopped or minced before it is added to meat, poultry, fish, or tuber and other vegetable dishes. In many regional Chinese cuisines, however, fresh ginger is cut into large slices, which are then slowly simmered in a broth to soften them or stir-fried in concert with other ingredients. One such dish in Fujian features veritable slabs of ginger with duck and sautéed amaranth greens in a hearty broth. Kung pao (or gongbao, lierally “palace guard”) chicken, a gingery favorite that also features chicke, peanuts, garlic, and chiles, is among the better-known stir-fried dishes of Sichuan Province. Pickled ginger is often served alongside sushi and sashimi in (and now far beyond) Japan. I frequently depend on pickled ginger to calm my nausea-prone stomach and keep a plastic pouch of its pinkish slivers readily accessible in my refrigerator.

Although ginger is included in the dishes of various European and African cuisines, it is perhaps more commonly used to spice up beverages. Ginger is now a rather minor ingredient of ginger ale compared with the fructose and carbonated water that goes into it, but ginger-flavored kombucha is becoming the rage in the United States and can be quite potent. It continues to be used to flavor beers, breads, and cookies throughout the West, with gingerbread men and gingersnaps still legendary among youngsters of western Europe, the United States, and Canada.

Cambrelle, Fabienne. The Flavor of Spices. Paris: Flammarion, 2008.
Green, Aliza. Field Guide to Herbs and Spices. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2006.
Katzer, Gernot. “Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages.” Accessed May 8, 2013.
Sortun, Ana, with Nicole Chaison. Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean. New York: Regan Books, 2006.
Weiss, E.A. Spice Crops. Wallingford, UK: CABI Publishing, 2002.
With permission from: 
Gary Nabhan’s Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey
University of California Press