The History of Ginger: From India to the New World

Cardamom
Cardamom

Cultivated Ginger

Introduction

Ginger is a spice we are all familiar with. It flavors gingerbread cookies, goes into pumpkin pies and is served fresh with sushi. But what is ginger, where does it come from and how did it get into our spice racks?

Ginger goes many names. It just all depends on how you look at it.

  • Its Latin name is Zingiber officinale.
  • The name ginger actually comes from the Middle English word gingivere

  • In Sanskrit it is known as Sunthi, Ardrake, Vishvabheshaja and Srngaveran or horned root

  • One of the names it goes by in China is Sheng jiang

Ginger is in the family Zingiberaceaeand is closely related to turmeric, Curcuma longa, and cardamom, Elettaria cardamomum. Ginger originated in the lush tropical jungles in Southern Asia. Although ginger no longer grows wild, it is thought to have originated on the Indian subcontinent. The ginger plants grown in India show the largest amount of genetic variation. The larger the number of genetic variations, the longer the plant has grown in that region.


Fresh Ginger Root

Cross section of fresh ginger
Cross section of fresh ginger

The Plant

The ginger plant itself is a perennial that grows from 1- 3 feet in height.  Its lush green spears sprout from thick underground rhizomes. Rhizomes are not roots but are actually the under-ground portion of the individual spears.  This is how ginger reproduces.  Irises are a familiar plant that reproduces by rhizomes. The rhizomes are sent out from the original plant and these rhizomes then send up more shoots.  The ginger plant also sends up club-shaped flower spikes, but new ginger plants are produced by the spreading rhizomes. These club-shaped spikes appear on individual stalks sent up by the rhizomes. The flowers are a yellowish white splashed with purple.  The flowers ripen into red fruit.  These fruits have 3 compartments filled with several small black seeds. 

Lost in the Mist of Time

Ginger has been cultivated in India and China before historical records began.  The earliest written medical books of both of these countries, discuss ginger, both fresh and dried and their many uses in great detail.  In both India and China, fresh and dried ginger are considered separate entities.  One of the earliest medical books in China “Nong Cao Jing” attributed to The Divine Plowman Emperor was written about 2000 BCE.  While the Ayurvedic text “Charka Samhita” written in or about the 3rd century BCE and “Sushruta Samhita” written in the 3 or 4 century AD discuss treatments using ginger. 

From Arabia to the Mediterranean
From Arabia to the Mediterranean
Ancient Greeks
Ancient Greeks
Ancient Romans
Ancient Romans

Arab Traders

Ginger reached the Mediterranean with Arab traders over 2000 years ago. It was brought from India to the Near East. From there, it was brought across the Red Sea by Arab traders and sold to both the Greek and Roman civilizations. Records show that ancient Rome taxed the imported ginger when it came ashore at Alexandria. When ancient Rome fell, ginger and its uses were lost to most of Europe


Bald's Leech Book
Bald's Leech Book

Good Queen Bess

Good Queen Bess
Good Queen Bess

Europe Discovers Ginger

It wasn’t until the 11th century that Europe rediscovered ginger. Bald’s Leech Book, an herbal, written by the Anglo-Saxons in or around the 11th century mentions ginger. Ginger is discussed in great detail in the 13th century in the book Physicians of Myddvai, a book written on order of the Prince of South Wales by a physician, Rhiwallow and his three sons. Marseilles placed a tariff on ginger imports as early as 1128. Paris followed in 1296. By the 14th century, the only spice more popular than ginger, was black pepper.

Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was fond of ginger. She is given the credit for the appearance of the now famous ginger bread men seen at Christmas time.

Spanish Explorers
Spanish Explorers

jamaica

Jamaica
Jamaica

From Europe to the New World

Ginger reached the New World with Spanish Conquistadors. By 1585, it was being exported from Santa Domingo. As Western Europeans fanned out across the globe, ginger went with them. It is now grown in tropical countries around the world. China and India are still the largest exporters of ginger.  Caribbean countries like Jamaica, South American countries like Brazil export large quantities of ginger. Nigeria and Sierra Leone on the African continent are also big exporters of ginger.

So the next time you eat a ginger snap or drink a glass of ginger ale, remember how long ago it started its journey and how far it had to come to make it to your table.

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Comments 1 comment

Peter Geekie profile image

Peter Geekie 3 years ago from London

Dear reddog1027,

Thank you for an interesting and useful article. Ginger is one of my favourites but not pickled ginger.

Now that reminds me where did I put the recipe for English Ginger Cake.

Kind regards Peter

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