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Exploring Ginger: The Christmas Spice for Sweets Is Great for Dinner, Too

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

ginger root

ginger root

What Is In This Article?

  • Introduction
    • Shakespearean quote
    • Merchants and monarchs, sages, and sheep
  • The History
    • Our story begins in China
    • What about the monarch?
    • Medieval Gingerbread recipe
  • A Gingerbread Recipe for Today
  • Sweet Recipes Using Ginger
    • Lemon ginger marmalade
    • Rosemary citrus ginger cranberry sauce
    • Ginger tea
    • Carb Diva’s pumpkin ginger loaf
  • Savory Recipes Using Ginger
    • Carrot ginger soup
    • Gingered pork tenderloin with peanut sauce
    • Grilled orange ginger prawns
    • Thai cashew coconut rice with ginger peanut sauce
  • How to Grow Ginger
  • Ginger “Visitor”

Had I but a penny in the world, thou shouldst have it for gingerbread

— William Shakespeare

Merchants and Monarchs, Sages and Sheep

Ginger is a beautiful fragrant flowering plant, a luxurious tuberous perennial that spreads her fleshy roots underground to expand and propagate. Her story begins as many of our tales about treasured herbs and spices—deep within the heart of India.

It is there that anthropologists have found remnants, tiny fragments of ginger root used 5,000 years ago. In the beginning, long before the written word, long before Man began to record his own history, there was ginger.

ginger plant

ginger plant

“Do not eat too much. Do not talk at meals. Do not take away the ginger.”

— Confucius

Our Story Begins in China

We know that ginger also grew in China; wise men in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic Indian systems viewed it as a healing gift from God. We also know that, from its origin to the present, ginger has been the world’s most widely cultivated herb.

Historians believe that by the 5th century, ginger was being transported in trade ships to what was then the far reaches of the Earth—Rome—where it was used both as a medicine and a flavoring agent. Ginger became a highly valued trade commodity. However, with the decline of the Roman Empire, this precious (and costly) herb almost fell from existence in Europe. Arab merchants stepped in and began to control the export of ginger from India, and they developed a new market in Africa where ginger proved to be a treatment for malaria and yellow fever.

Today ginger can be found anywhere, and for just a few dollars, but in the 13th. century ginger was so highly valued that one pound cost the same as a whole live sheep.

OK, So What about the Monarch?

By medieval times ginger was being preserved and imported to England for use in sweets. A common use was “gingerbread.”

However, the gingerbread of that time bears little resemblance to the cake- or cookie-like treats that we enjoy today. It was more of a honey candy. It is said that Queen Elizabeth I of England originated the idea of forming gingerbread into the likeness of visiting dignitaries. The following recipe is from a 15th-century English manuscript:

Could that be the  Earl of Leicester in the lower right-hand corner?

Could that be the Earl of Leicester in the lower right-hand corner?

"Gyngerbrede.--Take a quart of hony, & sethe it,& skeme it clene; take Safroun, pouder Pepir, & throw ther-on; take grayted Bred, & make it so chargeaunt that it wol be y-lechyd; then take pouder Canelle, & straw ther-on y-now; then make yt square, lyke as thou wolt leche yt; take when thou lechyst hyt, an caste Box leves a-bouyn, y-stykyd ther-on, on clowys. And if thou wolt haue it Red, coloure it with Saunderys y-now."

Medieval Gingerbread


  • 1 cup honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 3/4 cups finely ground, dry, unseasoned breadcrumbs
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  1. Place honey in the top of a double boiler and heat to simmering. Stir in spices and bread crumbs and mix thoroughly. Cover and cook over medium-low heat for 15 minutes. Remove from heat.
  2. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and spray lightly with non-stick cooking spray.
  3. Spread the breadcrumb-honey mixture onto the prepared pan and pat to about ½-inch thickness. Turn the pan over onto a clean work surface. Remove the parchment paper, and cut the gingerbread into small squares or diamond shapes. Decorate as desired (a piece of candy placed on top of each piece or a dusting of powdered sugar is nice).

In the 16th century, the English replaced the breadcrumbs with flour, and added eggs and sweeteners, resulting in a lighter product. Much more like the gingerbread cookies we know and love today.

A wonderful recipe for today's gingerbread cookies was recently posted by the Food Network.

But Wait, There's More!

Today ginger can be enjoyed (and used) is so many ways. While it is still relevant as a tonic, ginger is an aromatic, pungent, and spicy herb that lends a special flavor and zest to so many dishes—beverages, stir fries, desserts, and numerous fruit and vegetable dishes.

Please let me share a few recipes with you.

lemon ginger marmalade

lemon ginger marmalade

Lemon Ginger Marmalade

This is not your typical citrus marmalade. Fresh ginger adds a touch of heat. This would work great as a substitute for chutney with pork.

Rosemary citrus ginger cranberry sauce

Rosemary citrus ginger cranberry sauce

Rosemary Citrus Ginger Cranberry Sauce

Every Thanksgiving, my family knows that I will make not one, but two cranberry sauces. The first will be the classic—fresh cranberries simmered with sugar and a touch of water until the berries "pop", the pectin the the fruit melds with the juice, and a sweet jellied cranberry sauce results.

And, then there is the 2nd option. Each year it is different, be design. I'm always on the prowl for something new and creative. This year, I'm preparing this cranberry sauce with ginger.

ginger tea

ginger tea

Ginger Tea

This ginger tea is warm and soothing. If you have a sore throat, upset tummy, or just need a hot cup of comfort on which to wrap your cold, stiff fingers, this is literally "your cup of tea."

Carb Diva's pumpkin ginger loaf

Carb Diva's pumpkin ginger loaf

Carb Diva's Pumpkin Ginger Loaf

Here's my answer to an easy to make a quick bread with the sweet flavor of pumpkin and the warmth of ginger. Enjoy a warm slice with butter for a comforting breakfast or top with vanilla ice cream for dessert.


  • 1 tablespoon butter, softened
  • 2 cups flour
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 cup crystallized ginger, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup canned pumpkin puree, (not pumpkin pie filling!)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons orange zest
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 1/2 cup hazelnuts, chopped
  • 1/4 cup confectioner's sugar
  • 4 teaspoons milk or cream


  1. Heat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Butter and then flour the bottom and sides of a 9x5-inch baking pan. Tap a corner of the pan on the counter to remove any excess flour.
  3. In a large bowl combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and ground ginger. Whisk until well blended.
  4. Stir in the crystallized ginger.
  5. In a separate bowl combine the buttermilk, eggs, and vanilla. Add the pumpkin puree and orange zest. Whisk until blended. Pour these wet ingredients over the dry ingredients. Add the melted butter. Using a spatula, gently fold all of the ingredients together until blended.
  6. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Sprinkle the hazelnuts on top.
  7. Bake in the preheated oven until the top is golden and a wooden skewer or toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 50 minutes.
  8. Remove from the oven. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for 30 minutes. Invert the bread onto the wire rack and remove the pan. Turn the bread upright and let cool completely.
  9. In a small bowl stir together the confectioner's sugar and the milk or cream until smooth. If this glaze seems a bit thick, drizzle in a bit more milk or cream, 1 tsp. at a time, until you obtain a pourable consistency.
  10. Drizzle the glaze over the bread.
carrot ginger soup

carrot ginger soup

Carrot Ginger Soup

Here's a great recipe from Emeril Lagasse. The ginger in this soup gives it a nice little kick and it can be served either hot or cold, depending on the season.

Gingered Pork Tenderloin with Peanut Sauce


  • 1 pound pork tenderloin
  • 1 3-ounce package Ramen noodles, uncooked
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • Red pepper flakes (a pinch to 1/2 teaspoon according to your heat preference)
  • 1 teaspoon grated, fresh ginger root
  • 1/4 cup creamy peanut butter (not natural)
  • 2 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce
  • 2 cups fresh spinach, torn, washed, and drained
  • 1/4 cup sliced green onions


  1. Cut tenderloin into 1/4-inch thick slices, and then cut each slice in half.
  2. Cook noodles according to package directions, drain and reserve cooking water.
  3. Heat oil in a large skillet over high heat; add pork, pepper flakes, and ginger.
  4. Cook and stir until pork is no longer pink, about 4 to 5 minutes. Remove pork from pan and keep warm.
  5. Blend peanut butter, 1/2 cup reserved cooking water, and soy sauce; Pour into skillet; heat and stir over medium heat until heated. Add more cooking water if needed.
  6. Return pork to the pan along with noodles and spinach. Toss to coat with sauce. Serve garnished with green onions.
  7. Makes 4 servings.
grilled orange ginger prawns

grilled orange ginger prawns

Grilled Orange Ginger Prawns

Prawns are so quick and easy to cook. Keep a supply of them in your freezer. (Honestly, even the ones in your market that are "fresh" were frozen at sea) and pull a few out when the mood strikes. This recipe from my kitchen blends orange citrus with the sweet heat of ginger for the perfect seafood glaze. A side salad or plate of fresh veggies will round out your meal, low cal, low carb, high flavor.


  • 1 1/2 cups orange juice
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 2 tablespoons orange marmalade
  • 2 teaspoons fresh ginger root, grated
  • 2 teaspoons low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon lime juice
  • 2 pounds large shrimp peeled and deveined, (about 1/2 pound per person)


  1. Pour orange juice into a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat; cook until reduced to 1/2 cup (about 8 minutes). Set aside to cool slightly.
  2. Remove saucepan from heat. Stir in marmalade, fresh ginger root, soy sauce, and lime juice. Set aside.
  3. Thread 4 or 5 (depending on size) shrimp on each bamboo skewer, piercing each near the head and the tail. Don't crowd them together too closely--you want them to cook evenly.
  4. Preheat grill to medium-hot, or about 325 to 350 degrees. (The grill is medium-hot if you can hold your hand about 4 inches above the coals for only 6 to 8 seconds).
  5. Oil the grill lightly; place the skewered shrimp directly on the grill over medium heat.
  6. Grill for 2 to 3 minutes on one side and then turn. Brush with orange sauce; continue grilling 1 to 2 more minutes until they turn pink, then remove from heat immediately. Do not overcook or they will become tough and rubbery.
  7. Brush shrimp once again with sauce. Serve additional sauce on the side.
thai cashew coconut rice with ginger peanut sauce

thai cashew coconut rice with ginger peanut sauce

Thai Cashew Coconut Rice With Ginger Peanut Sauce

This beautiful salad has everything going for it; it's vegetarian (but you could add chicken if you simply must), crunchy, a contrast of sweet-salty, pretty enough for company (look at all of those colors!), and would be great for a potluck presentation.

ginger blossom

ginger blossom

What Is Ginger?

Ginger is a rhizome (a plant that spreads via underground stems—think iris, asparagus, bamboo) in the same family that includes cardamom and turmeric.

Ginger can be grown indoors as a houseplant. In the landscape, ginger requires moist, fertile, well-drained soil, and a shady area in USDA climate zones 9 through 12. In cooler climates it can be grown as an annual after the threat of frost has passed, and nighttime temperatures are above 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

I couldn't resist including this cute ginger kitty

I couldn't resist including this cute ginger kitty

© 2015 Linda Lum

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