Many folks know the familiar flavor of ginger, but aren’t aware of either what it looks or tastes like. Few people realize that the spicy-sweet taste they’re used to is actually a shredded root. When planted, ginger creates clusters of white and pink flower buds that produce yellow flowers, but the appeal is really after the stock withers and the root is pulled for food. It has many uses in cuisine – particularly vegetarian – and can also be made into a tea, soda, bread, or a candy. This versatile root can often be found pickled at sushi restaurants, and has a variety of health benefits. Let’s take a closer look at the history of the plant, and how it can be incorporated into a vegetarian diet.

Ginger Culture and History

Cultivation of ginger began in Southern Asia, and fans of Asian food are quite familiar with the taste, as it is used in many dishes from the region. Ginger is related to turmeric, an ingredient often found in Indian food, and can be grown in other warm climates. During the 13th and 14th centuries, ginger and black pepper were among the most commonly traded spices despite the cost; one pound of ginger at the time in England was equivalent to the cost of a sheep. During the 1800s, many experimented with ginger as a form of beer, and some brewers crafted ginger beers with an alcohol percentage similar to that of many wines today (11 percent). By 1880, many non-alcoholic ginger ales had been crafted, and the drink quickly became America’s favorite soda until World War II, when it was eclipsed by cola as the drink of choice.

Ginger is also quite popular in the Caribbean Islands, as it is able to grow in the lush tropical environment. Because of how well it grows in the wild, Jamaica exports most of the world’s ginger, followed by India, Africa and China.

Health Benefits of Ginger

Traditionally, ginger was used in folk medicine practices and was classified as a stimulant and a carminative, meaning it helps prevent gas formation in the gastrointestinal tract. That said, ginger was historically used to treat gastrointestinal discomfort such as constipation, and often to mask the unsavory flavors of other medicines. Ginger has long been used as a natural treatment for colds and cases of the stomach flu and food poisoning. Ironically, powdered ginger-eaters have often complained of gas, bloating, heartburn, and nausea. Studies are inconclusive regarding the effects on combatting other things, like treating pain from arthritis and joint pain.

As an ovarian cancer treatment, ginger can be a powerful weapon. A University of Michigan study found that ginger powder induced death in all ovarian cancer cells to which it was applied. Additionally, ginger may slow the growth of colorectal cancer cells. Ginger can also be an effective treatment for morning sickness, as well as motion sickness. Some traditionalists take advantage of ginger’s anti-inflammatory properties and purport it as a powerful natural painkiller. Because of those anti-inflammatory properties, some with migraine troubles may find it useful in combatting headaches, and if used in conjuction with brown sugar as a tea, can find relief from menstrual cramps. Diabetics would be wise to eat ginger as well, as reduced incidence of kidney damage in diabetic rats was found to be fairly common.

Eating More Ginger

Considering all of the easy ways with which ginger can be consumed, its taste, and health benefits incurred, use of fresh ginger should be on top of every vegetarian’s list. Recipe lists for veggie stir-fry are miles long, and the root is used in nearly every Asian dish. Commonly, any vegetable sauté can get beefed-up (no pun intended) by the mere existence of ginger, and it plays extremely well with garlic and caramelized onions. The less strict vegetarian will find that any seafood dish where ginger and garlic are included is pure heaven. Desserts are an overlooked aspect of ginger, where a glaze can be created with molasses and orange and poured over cooked carrots, yams, or sweet potatoes. Looking for a nice vegan sorbet? It can add a new dimension to your fruit-based desserts as well.

So, check out some recipes that incorporate ginger and give them a try, and tell us how you like them!