Mentioned in the Koran, the Kama Sutra and the writings of Confucius, Vasco da Gama and Marco Polo, ginger has been regarded as a cure-all tonic root for millennia.
As early as the 12th century, ginger was the second most desired spice, just behind black pepper, according to Bruce Cost, author of Ginger East to West. Imported from the Orient, it was a costly and coveted commodity, and was thought to help treat and prevent plague. A pound of fresh ginger, called ‘gingivere’ in the Middle Ages, cost the same as a live sheep. By the 1500s, the Spanish were cultivating the plant in the New World.
Ginger belongs to the same family as turmeric, cardamom and galanga. Its active ingredients—gingerols and shogaols— give it its spicy citrus taste and stimulating properties.
“Ginger has long been seen as a warming herb, as a plant that dispels dampness and wind,” says Cost. “In ancient Chinese medicine, ginger is the ‘yin’ [an ingredient with heating properties] to the ‘yang’ [one with cooling properties]. Both were used in medicinal recipes and cooking for balance.”
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Ginger helps promote the production of saliva and digestive fluids, giving it the power to soothe an upset stomach. In ancient Greece, ginger was wrapped in bread and eaten after supper to aid the digestion process. Today, ginger ale is still used to settle a stomachache.
In India, ginger paste is applied to the temples to relieve headaches and ingested to stave off colds, while in South America it’s used as a decongestant to minimize allergy symptoms and to treat a sore throat. Ginger oil has long been used in China for massage and to relieve arthritis and joint pain. Zingibain, an active enzyme present in ginger, offers anti-inflammatory benefits and soothes burns and promotes healing, too.
This season, ginger is reborn in a host of modern beauty launches. Strange Invisible’s Arunima scent has top notes of ginger and cardamom, while Penhaligon’s Sartorial features ginger head notes and other spices. Kenzo’s limited edition eau for men blends ginger with nutmeg and coriander, while Mark’s Great Energy Multi-Wear Scent Booster includes ginger for its sense-awakening properties.
On the hair and skin care front, ginger stars in Paul Mitchell’s Awapuhi Wild Ginger Styling Treatment Oil Ultra-Light Silky and in Jonathan Weightless Smooth No-Frizz Shampoo Keratin & Soy Protein to repair damaged strands. Intraceuticals Rejuvenate Daily Serum blends the spice with hibiscus extract to stimulate collagen production, and Molton Brown’s invigorating Paradisiac Pink Pepperpod Bath & Shower unites Brazilian pink pepper spice extract with ginger and floral notes.
First appearing in Southeast Asia more than 3,000 years ago, ginger is a tropical perennial creeping plant that can grow to a height of about four feet. The plant’s nutrients and flavor come from its knotty, buff-hued underground rhizome, typically unearthed after about 10 months. Older ginger is more aromatic and has more medicinal value, while younger ginger is generally less potent. “Humankind has always been intrigued by ginger,” says Cost. “It’s been a part of almost every culture.”