How ginger spiced up Irish food
Ginger is now less used here for baking and more for cooking curries, ramen and bone broths
Versatile: ginger. Photograph: iStock
I’ve just finished writing a recipe for ginger cake for my Irish food cookbook. “But that’s not Irish,” says one of my chefs when I tell him. Is it? How could a flavour that originated halfway across the world (possibly India) come to represent an aspect of Irish food?
The name “ginger” derives from the Sanskrit word srngaveram, which means horn or antler. This refers to the ways in which the root grows underground, a rhizome spreading out in all directions.
The first literary reference to ginger comes to us from China, from around 200 BC, when it was used for medicinal purposes. It terms of it getting to Europe, we had to wait another 500 years, when the Romans listed it as a taxable commodity. They must have really liked this fragrant spice, for it to draw the attention of the taxman. As we know in our own age, anything that gives pleasure or tastes great will always command more tax.
The Romans made teas and wine with ginger (ginger wine was popular in Ireland in the 19th century), and also preserved the roots in honey or spread it on meat. I assume the spice, as well as contributing to the overall taste of the meat, would have possibly masked the putrid smell.
Throughout the middle ages, the ginger trade remained in the hands of Arab merchants, travelling into Europe along the so-called Silk Road (which was only named in the 19th century).
Ironically, this sweet and pungent spice has many more savoury uses in Japan (pickled with sushi) and other Asian countries. In Europe, and Ireland in particular, the spice was used predominantly in baked goods: from cakes to biscuits and syrups. Perhaps it was the Irish sweet tooth that needed something spicy to brighten up their dull days.
Ginger is perhaps less used today in Ireland for baking and more for cooking curries, ramen and bone broths. But we need to remember our own food heritage, even if it is at odds with the way we want Irish food to be. Ginger is a part of Irish food. Accept it.