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Very Gingerly

Pickled or sugared, sliced or infused, ginger is the ingredient of the moment—with benefits as great as the dishes it flavors.

The spa specialist picks up a glass bowl brimming with a slurry of golden crystals and places it under my nose. “Smell,” she says.

As I inhale I feel both a little livelier, a little mellower. The slurry, it turns out, consists of ginger oil, almond oil, sea salt, and honey. It refreshes as it warms. Bella Klyashtornaya works at Ajune on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where the scent of ginger is found in many of the signature treatments.

“Do you like sushi?” she asks.

I love sushi, I tell her.

“The pink, it’s ginger, too, you know,” she says, then asks if I eat it after my fish.

“Well, no,” I reply. “Not always.”

“You should. Always!” she insists. “If anything is wrong with the sushi, you must eat the ginger. It’s antiseptic.”

That seems to be the way with ginger. Just as it is refreshing yet warming, it can be luxurious yet utilitarian—at once a pampering spa treatment and an industrial-strength germ killer. Ginger is full of contradictions and that is precisely, or so it would appear, the quality that has helped catapult the homely stem into the ingredient of the moment. It very much appeals to our “have your cake and eat it, too” sensibilities. We like to celebrate the far-flung and exotic as well as the local and practical. We want to be healthy but inevitably indulge. We embrace the high-tech and modern but can’t survive without the old and time-tested. Ginger, mysteriously albeit brilliantly, satisfies such opposing desires.

And today it is everywhere—in more than 320 food and beverage items and at cosmetic counters, where the number of ginger-infused products has increased by 52 percent in the past two years. Ginger is, of course, on restaurant menus of just about any cuisine, from Mexican to Thai to French; its juices and syrups are shaken and stirred in bars uptown and downtown around the world. And it has become de rigueur in spas from Austin, Texas, to Pulau Langkawi, Malaysia.

Ginger—Zingiber officinale, to botanists—is neither a fruit nor a vegetable, but a spice, or rhizome, a stem that lives underground in a horizontal position and sprouts shoots from the top and roots at the bottom. The flavor is neither obviously refreshing the way a lemon is nor spicy like black pepper but instead offers a little of both: The sharp, bright notes hit first, the heat roars in moments later.

While most Americans are familiar with ground ginger, interest in the stark bite of the fresh sort is a recent phenomenon. As François Payard, owner of the eponymous Manhattan restaurant, says, “It’s ticklish on the tongue.” Add fresh ginger to modest flavors and they suddenly gain a spicier, sexier dimension.

We’ve come a long way since the seventies, when mainstream America didn’t quite understand the rhizome. “I remember doing a demonstration,” says Abbie Leeson, co-owner of www.GingerPeople.com, a Web site devoted to selling everything ginger. “People were shielding their children, saying ‘Don’t try that. It’s very hot!’ ” No doubt, the Americanization of Japanese food has had something to do with the new level of comfort today, says perfumer Loc Dong. “Human beings recognize similarities,” he explains, even if it’s a subtle correlation between the ginger-pepper cocktail in Calvin Klein’s Euphoria and the pickled sort on a sashimi plate. Ginger’s proliferation in food shows, cookbooks, and magazines fosters this comfort level. The travel boom and the Internet have also played a part. Ginger seems downright folksy now that açaí and goji berries have entered the conversation.

In truth, ginger has been a folk remedy all along, even in the West. According to some sources, it began thousands of years ago when someone in India plucked this rough, fleshy stem from the soil and decided to peel and eat it. By the fourth century b.c., as a dinner scene out of the Hindu epic poem Mahabharata suggests, cooks were already stewing meat in a ginger-rich brew. “There’s an old Indian saying,” explains Suvir Saran, cookbook author and co-owner of Dévi, an Indian restaurant in New York, “ ‘You need to elicit fifty-six sensations to make a good meal.’ ” With ginger you’re off to a good start. Saran minces it into a curry sauce for shrimp, rubs it on fish before grilling it, and chops it up to scatter on sandwiches. “It has this sharp bitter-astringent flavor,” he says. “When you add it to a salami sandwich, you no longer have just a salami sandwich.”

From India ginger traveled to China and throughout Southeast Asia. Monks, for example, cultivated their favorite foods as they wandered from place to place. Before the birth of Christ, Persian caravans were trekking across Asia, picking up ginger as well as silk and other spices. The ingredient caught on and various regions made it their own, mixing it with cumin and cardamom to give heat to grilled meats. Today Yemenis even add it to coffee.

Ginger spread farther west as well, and by the Middle Ages it was practically ubiquitous. Without chile peppers to kick things up a notch, ginger was used. Medieval gourmands ground it with chicken and veal to stuff ravioli and tossed it with capons, eel, or fish. Candied ginger—the original dragée, as author Terence Scully calls it in The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages—was the preferred digestive to cap off a meal. But by the Renaissance it had largely fallen out of favor in savory dishes.

Powdered and candied forms, which shipped more easily over long distances, remained in sweets. As a result, unlike their cohorts in the East, many Western gourmands weren’t aware of fresh ginger until they entered the kitchen professionally. “I knew only the powdered kind until around 1980,” says überchef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, a native of Alsace. “But now ginger is my life!” The transformation happened when he was chef de cuisine at the Oriental hotel in Bangkok. One day he ran out of apples for his foie gras, so he caramelized some mangoes and created a vegetable broth with ginger, something he’d happened to discover at the local market. “That was a eureka moment,” says Vongerichten. And perhaps it was also the rebirth of ginger as a necessary fusion-food element. It feels right chopped in chunks in Britain’s Green & Black’s chocolate bars, minced in a quesadilla, shaved and sprinkled (“like salt on savories,” says Payard), or as an ingredient in an otherwise mild-mannered French chestnut tart. In each, at least to the relatively educated palate, these foods taste cleaner, crisper, sexier.

For the health-conscious, ginger may be the perfect panacea: Consuming more of it could actually make you healthier. Seriously.

Research shows that the compound 6-gingerol, which gives the rhizome its potent taste, may be the very element that makes it a potent radical-disease fighter. In a University of Delhi study, scientists raised the level of oxidative stress in rats by exposing them to just enough pesticide; when they then fed them a ginger solution, the antioxidant effects proved as powerful as those of vitamin C. It’s no wonder ginger has come to rival orange juice and garlic as a cold fighter. “I will not fly without my ginger tea,” says Manhattan-based nutritionist Oz Garcia. The last time he jetted off to Moscow, he packed a few tea bags in a ziplock and filled up on the brew his whole trip. “It soothes the throat,” he says, “and keeps the breathing passages open.”

What’s more, 6-gingerol may also help fight cancer. The research is preliminary, but the potential applications are many. At the University of Michigan, applying ginger-powder solution to ovarian-cancer-cell cultures caused the cells to destroy or attack themselves. At the University of Minnesota a thrice-weekly diet enriched with 6-gingerol slowed tumor growth in mice injected with human colorectal cancer cells. The compound also seems to increase blood flow, lower blood pressure, and reduce inflammation. Which, in turn, promotes an array of benefits—everything from easing joint pain to relaxing bronchial constriction. In reality, however, doctors aren’t prescribing ginger just yet; more research is needed.

But for those looking to maintain their well-being, a little ginger can’t hurt, particularly when it’s served up in the form of an indulgent meal or a spa treatment. A thick cut of red meat from the Waldorf-Astoria’s Bull and Bear doesn’t seem quite so bad with a generous dousing of the house steak sauce that is made with ginger. Johnny Iuzzini, executive pastry chef at Jean Georges, ups the health quotient of fruits by poaching them in ginger. And rubbing it on aching muscles, a practice said to have been a favorite of Balinese farmers after a long day in the fields, has been revived and glamorized at Newport Beach’s Island Hotel.

Indeed, some of the world’s oldest cultures have long embraced ginger for health’s sake. In China the tradition of women drinking ginger-vinegar soup after giving birth is meant to provide them with much-needed calcium and iron. Ayurvedic practitioners in India have recommended ginger for migraines. And around the globe it has been credited with aphrodisiac properties. As Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat writes in History of Food, elderly African men would imbibe ginger-infused water in hopes of recapturing their youthful vigor. It’s also rumored that Senegalese women would wear belts made with the stem to put their husbands in the mood. But perhaps a medical faculty founded in Salerno, Italy, by four legendary physicians put it most poetically:

“Within the stomach, loins, and in the lung
Praise of hot ginger rightly may be sung.
It quenches thirst, revives, excites the brain
And in old age awakes young love again.”

Basking in the glow of good health, ginger has become a favorite ingredient in some of the most indulgent beauty products. It adds the “warming” element to Molton Brown’s Warming Eucalyptus & Ginger body scrub and wash, both literally and emotionally. Once we learn that the Thai Honey lip balm at Chiva-Som Spa in Thailand includes ginger oil, we believe it will give us plump, dewy lips. It makes sense, then, that Origins’ Ginger line outsells all of its other bath and body collections. Still, it can be a mild skin irritant and must be used carefully, says Leslie Baumann, M.D., author of The Skin Type Solution.

The true genius of ginger is its not-exactly-pretty knack for cleaning up the digestive system and fixing whatever is too unpleasant to discuss in polite company—a much-appreciated quality in this age of frequent travel. Long before it became the active (selling) ingredient in popular potions and lotions and sexy fragrances, ginger was nature’s Pepto-Bismol.

According to the classic theory of health and nutrition put forth by the Chinese sage Yi Yin around 1700 b.c., certain tastes must be harmonized. “Meats, in particular, which often had a strong and unappealing odor and flavor in their natural state, needed to be balanced with condiments such as ginger,” explains Joanna Waley-Cohen, Ph.D., a professor of history at New York University. Ginger’s effect seemed to work well for the emperor. After all, even royalty experienced indigestion from time to time.

The ancients had no issue with telling it like it was. In Rome, Apicius advised applying a ginger rub made with salt and celery and thyme seeds. “These spiced salts,” he wrote, “are used against indigestion, to move the bowels, against all illness, against pestilence.”

We now know that it is the zingibain component that rights whatever ails the stomach and intestines. The enzyme seems to enhance fat and protein metabolism and promote the growth of good bacteria. At the same time, 6-gingerol is said to assist with the breakdown of fats by increasing bile secretion. Research also suggests that ginger aids digestive tract muscles in pushing food through the system and eliminating gas. In a recent report in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, a ginger extract blocked E. coli–instigated diarrhea in mice; further study might point to effective doses for infants, thereby potentially saving countless lives in the developing world.

Sources such as the Department of Internal Medicine at National Yang-Ming University in Taiwan note ginger as being scientifically effective for the prevention and treatment of motion sickness. In a study published in The Lancet, researchers spun subjects in chairs for six minutes. Those given 940 milligrams of ginger in pill form about a half hour earlier were less likely to be nauseous compared with those who took Dramamine. Of course people living on the water knew this all along. Early Chinese sailors were said to have chewed ginger to prevent seasickness; centuries later we still do the same. “Growing up, we would take visitors fishing in the ocean,” recalls Paromi Tea founder Paul Rosen, who spent his childhood in the Caribbean. “I’d never start without giving them a slice of candied ginger. It always worked.” When he launched his company years later, he made absolutely sure ginger was part of the line.

Chef Martin Yan, host of Yan Can Cook and founder of a culinary arts center in Shenzhen, China, also grew up with the comforts of ginger. His mother would shred it into rice cooked up in a clay pot. And Yan has long brewed his own ginger tea when feeling under the weather. Not surprisingly, the rhizome is an important component in his cooking today—from the ginger syrup he serves with fruit to the minced pieces he stir-fries with sugar-snap peas. “If you were to ask me what I would take with me to a deserted island, any deserted island, I’d say a wok and ginger,” he says. “I don’t even need a spatula. So much can be done with ginger. It’s universal.”

Back at Ajune, my mind wanders and I begin to consider the many facets of ginger, the perfect incongruity of its existence and how, because of it, a woman from Russia can speak to me about Japanese food in the middle of a treatment reminiscent of a tradition in Bali. Universal indeed.

Ginger 101

A primer on making the most of your tropical rhizome

Young or old?

Young ginger—so light-skinned you can almost see through it—is best appreciated raw. “There’s a bite to it, almost like you can snap it apart,” says chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Old ginger, which tends to be spicier, more fibrous, and darker, is better for cocktails and soups.

To store

“Fill a soap dish with pebbles,” says Suvir Saran, chef and co-owner of Dévi restaurant in Manhattan. “Add water and place ginger on top. From time to time, sprinkle it with more water. It will keep for weeks if moist and not too wet. In the refrigerator, it will dry out, get tough, and grow mold.”

To peel

Many fancy tools, such as the Triangle grater ($24; broadway www.panhandler.com), will do a nice job, but chefs often just use a spoon. “Spoons just rub the skin off without wasting any flesh,” explains Robert Trester, chef at Bar Pintxo in Santa Monica.

To add an essence

Slice a piece of ginger to the size of a coin and add to pan along with the meat or vegetable you’re cooking. For a stronger ginger taste, peel it first—the part closest to the skin is the most flavorful, says Matthew Weingarten, former chef de cuisine at Manhattan’s Savoy restaurant. “It adds backbone to a braise or roast without overpowering the dish with too much ginger flavor.”

To make a juice or sauce

Be sure to chop the ginger into small pieces before puréeing in the blender—this will prevent that stringy texture.

To pickle

Peel ginger, then slice paper-thin with a sharp knife or a tool such as a mandoline, and sprinkle with salt. Let dry for an hour. Place in a sterilized jar with sugar and rice wine vinegar. Cover and store in the fridge.

Sip: Honey Ginger Tea

Japan

In Tokyo, where Hiroko Shimbo attended university, coughs and colds were not reason enough to stay home from school or work. “Our culture discourages that,” explains the author of The Japanese Kitchen. Fortunately, a classmate provided her with this recipe, which got her through the winter.

Ingredients

3/4 cup boiling water
1 whole ginger, peeled and grated
1 tbsp ginger juice (make by placing peeled, chopped ginger in juicer)
2 tbsp honey lemon juice from half a lemon

  1. Combine the water and ginger.
  2. Add honey and lemon juice.

Nourish: Ginger Chicken Soup

Taiwan

When Nina Simonds traveled to Taipei at the age of 19, she soothed her upset stomach with a local version of chicken soup. “I’d been working very hard at the time,” says the Asia expert, who now runs www.spicesoflife.com, “and this was precisely what I needed to find that balance.”

Ingredients

2 1/2 lbs chicken (wings, legs, and/or thighs)
10 cups water
3/4 cups rice wine or sake
6 slices fresh ginger (quarter-size, smashed lightly)

  1. Rinse chicken under cold running water.
  2. Drain and put in large pot, along with the water, rice wine, and ginger.
  3. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low; simmer uncovered for 11/2 hours, skimming to remove impurities.
  4. Pour broth into fine-mesh strainer, removing chicken and ginger.

  5. Ladle soup into bowls, return the chicken to each, and serve.

© Spices of Life, by Nina Simonds

Soak: Ginger Bush Bath

Jamaica

At Fern Tree, the Spa at Half Moon in Jamaica, Stella Gray, chief spa elder, prescribes bush baths for one regular client with a muscle condition. The scientific verdict is still out on ginger’s impact on pain, but a little ginger—and pampering—goes a long way, she says, “to enhance one’s quality of life.”

Ingredients

6 cups water
2 tbsp ground ginger
1 three-inch piece of gingerroot, washed and chopped
3 large sprigs of fresh rosemary (or 1 1/2 tbsp dried rosemary)
1 large sprig fresh basil (or 1 tbsp dried basil)
1 large sprig fresh peppermint (or 1 tsp dried peppermint)
3 tbsp lemongrass, fresh or dried

  1. Boil water in a kettle.
  2. Place all ingredients in a 10-inch square of cheesecloth or muslin and make a sachet by tying with string.
  3. Place in large bowl, pour boiled wa-ter over it, and steep for 20 minutes.
  4. Fill tub with warm water.
  5. Pour bowl of herb water and sachet into warm bath.
  6. Soak in bath for 20 minutes.

Refresh: Ginger Shower Scrub

U.S.A.

Barbara Close, founder of Naturo-pathica Holistic Health Spa in East Hampton, New York, suggests using this antioxidant-rich concoction to brighten the skin—and the spirits. “It’s uplifting,” says Close, an herbalist by training, “and inhaling high-quality ginger is good for jet lag and depression.”

Ingredients

3 oz sugar or sea salt

1 oz almond oil
10 drops tangerine oil
8 drops grapefruit oil
1/2 tsp fresh grated ginger

  1. Place ingredients in a glass bowl.
  2. Stir into a thick paste; bring into the shower.
  3. Apply, then rinse.