Early on in my childhood, I had a favourite kind of biscuit. Shalimar, a biscuit company in Mumbai (this was in the early 1980s) used to make these dark brown, sugar-crusted, intensely flavoured ginger biscuits. My uncle and aunt would get me some every once in a while, and, to this day, ginger biscuits are a favourite.
I hoard ginger in three forms in my kitchen—fresh ginger, powdered ginger and ginger extract.
I cannot go a day without fresh ginger. It is the first thing I reach out for when I enter the kitchen in the morning. I grate or pound a knob of ginger, add it to water, allowing the water to boil for a bit to get a strong ginger infusion before adding tea leaves.
When my mum makes tea for me, I always nag her, “Have you added enough ginger?” Grated or finely chopped, fresh ginger adds so much flavour to the tadka (tempering) for dal and dry subzis (vegetables).
Fresh ginger has a very unpredictable shelf life in the fridge. The younger variety with more moisture content can turn soggy in a few days, giving off a terrible odour. As soon as I buy fresh ginger, I give it a good scrubbing, removing all traces of mud. After wiping it dry, I pack it in a resealable bag and keep it in the freezer. This will keep for months. To use in tea or curries, grate the frozen ginger on a fine grater. It has an almost wet powder-like consistency, blending well into salad dressings and any other dishes. Another useful hack is to use the edge of a teaspoon, not a peeler, to scrape the skin.
Dried ginger in powdered form is a good backup for when you run out of the fresh root. It is an important ingredient in home-made digestive remedies such as Deepavali lehiyam (a spicy medicinal fudge) that is a part of Diwali mornings in some Tamil households. Lehiyam is a massive booster dose of all the digestive herbs consumed in anticipation of all the food that will be eaten over the next two-three days. Dried ginger powder is also a useful addition to the baking pantry, required for ginger cookies, gingerbread and other bakes.
I found ginger extract for the first time in stores selling spices in Kerala. Nowadays, many organic stores in Bengaluru as well as online stores stock it. It is a dark brown viscous liquid in a tiny glass bottle with a dropper. A drop of this extract is all you need to infuse your tea, or even hot chocolate.
The aroma and pungency in fresh ginger are due to compounds called gingerols. The interesting bit is that gingerols are related to the capsaicin family, which are compounds responsible for heat in chillies. This is the reason that adding a lot of ginger to a dish also amps up its heat or spice quotient.
Cooked as well as dried, raw ginger have slightly different flavour profiles from fresh ginger as the gingerols get modified into other compounds. It is less pungent cooked while dried ginger acquires greater pungency.
My first recipe to highlight ginger is a salad dressing. It ticks all the boxes of salty, sweet, hot and sour, with ginger as the flavour booster. A versatile recipe, it can be used to marinate tofu, as a dressing for Asian salads, or served as a dipping sauce. The other recipe is a most unusual use of ginger as the main ingredient in a Burmese-style salad.
GINGER SOY HONEY DRESSING
1 tsp ginger, very finely grated (see Notes)
2 tbsp dark soy sauce
2-3 tbsp water
1 tbsp white vinegar (or rice vinegar)
1-2 tbsp honey
1 tsp white sesame seeds, toasted
2 pinches red chilli flakes
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp sesame oil (optional)
In a small bowl, mix together grated ginger, soy sauce, water, vinegar, honey and sesame seeds. In a small pan, gently warm the oil with chilli flakes. Let it sit for 5 minutes until the oil acquires a reddish hue. Mix in the sesame oil, if using. Transfer this into the remaining ingredients, whisk well with a fork.
Store in an airtight container in the fridge and use within three-four days.
Notes: Keep a knob of fresh ginger in the freezer overnight and use a fine grater to grate ginger for this salad dressing
BURMESE GINGER SALAD (GIN THOKE)
3 1-inch pieces of young ginger
3 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp sesame seeds
6 cloves garlic, peeled
2 tsp vegetable oil
2 pinches chilli flakes
1/4 cup cabbage, finely julienned
1 medium tomato, deseeded and sliced
1/2 ripe mango, peeled, thinly sliced (optional)
2 tbsp soya sauce
3 tbsp roasted peanuts, crushed
Scrape or peel the skin from the ginger. Cut into thin juliennes and toss in lemon juice and salt. Cover and set aside for a minimum of 1 hour.
In a small pan, toast the sesame seeds until they splutter. Remove into a bowl. Slice the garlic thinly. Heat oil in the same pan and fry the garlic slices until golden brown and crisp. Drain using a slotted spoon and reserve. In the hot oil, sprinkle chilli flakes and keep aside. In a bowl, combine the cabbage, tomato, mango and soya sauce. Squeeze out the ginger from the lemon juice-salt mixture and add to the bowl.
Mix in the chilli oil, fried garlic slices and sesame seeds. Combine well and top with roasted crushed peanuts. Serve immediately.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient. Nandita Iyer is the author of The Everyday Healthy Vegetarian.