Last week, a friend asked if I liked the ginger she added to her rhubarb pie, a very unusual ingredient in any fruit pie. I loved her pie, especially with the ginger spice she added. As I discussed the ginger flavoring in Emma’s pie, I wondered if ginger were a spice, or an herb? Do you know?

In it’s natural form, fresh ginger looks like this. It’s very plentiful in Panama, but I’ve shied away from buying it fresh because I haven’t known how to prepare it.

So, I did some research and found that ginger has been important in Chinese medicine for many centuries, and is mentioned in the writings of Confucius. It was one of the earliest spices (yes, it’s a spice) known in Western Europe, used since the ninth century. It became so popular in Europe that it was included in every table setting, like salt and pepper, and it was one of the spices used against the plague.

In English pubs and taverns in the nineteenth century, barkeepers put out small containers of ground ginger, for people to sprinkle into their beer — the origin of ginger ale.

These are just a few benefits claimed by researchers for using ginger:

1. Ginger can calm an upset stomach, providing relief of bloating and gas.
2. It helps quiet a cough and soothes your throat.
3. Ginger has been proven to treat feelings of nausea.
4. It contains anti-viral, anti-toxic, and anti-fungal properties.
5. Ginger acts as an antihistamine and aids in the treatment of allergies.
6. It has anti-inflammatory properties and can be used to treat arthritis and various other muscular disorders.
7. Ginger aids in digestion and the prevention of stomach cramps.
8. It helps to protect against the development of ulcers.
9. Ginger has proven to help lower your cholesterol levels and prevent the formation of blood clots.
10. It is frequently used today in developing countries to treat diarrhea.

I also found that fresh ginger can be scraped or peeled, sliced, crushed or minced. The photo at the top is of a “hand” of fresh ginger, which is available in most supermarkets at very reasonable prices.

Powdered ginger is the buff-colored ground spice made from dried root. It’s my favorite way to use ginger, it’s reasonable, easy to use and it’s always on hand. Below is a photo of Ginger Crunch ready to eat.

You’ll find the recipe for Ginger Crunch in my new cookbook “Boquete Gourmet Community Cookbook” picutred at the left. It’s available to La Reyna, Sugar & Spice Bakery and El Cacique Souvenirs in Boquete, as well as at The Book Mark in Dolega and Felipe Motta Wine Store in David.

Preserved or ‘stem’ ginger is made from fresh young roots, peeled and sliced, then cooked in a heavy sugar syrup. The ginger pieces and syrup are bottled together, making it always ready to use. This form is extremely hot and spicy, so don’t use much at one time.

Crystallized ginger is also cooked in sugar syrup, then air dried and rolled in sugar. This is very easy to make. I buy lots of fresh ginger, scrape off the peel with a small knife, cut it into strips and boil the strips in simple syrup until clear, tender and the syrup is cooked away. After they are laid out on foil to cool, shake them in a plastic bag filled with granulated sugar and set aside to dry. Keep the candied ginger in a tightly-sealed container. I use crystallized ginger in fruit salads, as a garnish, and it makes a nice treat eaten alone.

Pickled ginger is another way to prepare fresh ginger. Slice the root paper-thin and pickle it in a vinegar solution. This pickle is known in Japan as “gari” , which often accompanies sushi, and is served to refresh the palate between courses. This is even easier to make than candied ginger.

Getting back to Emma’s pie, if you have the opportunity to include ginger to add a gourmet touch to any of your dishes, and please do it for health!