It’s difficult to describe the taste of ginger. It’s got the same fresh kick as lemon does, but there’s something distinctly woody, earthy and spicy about it too. Our relationship with it is ancient. Ginger originated in the jungles of Southeast Asia and its first journey to the West took it to Rome, from whence we started cultivating it across the globe. And every time it found a new home it changed slightly, tasting slightly different depending on the region in which it is grown. Jamaican ginger grown in Nigeria, for instance, is rich and pungent, whereas Australian ginger is known for its pronounced lemoniness.
And like all the best spices, it can take so many forms and play multiple different roles in the kitchen. Apart from fresh ginger, there’s ground ginger (great in curries), glacé (why not?), pickled (sushi anyone?), preserved in syrup (cocktail hour!), and juiced ginger (the next morning), to name a few.
Although growing ginger is a pursuit best suited to the tropics where the climate is at its most moderate, it is more than happy to play along in less hospitable parts of the world in exchange for a bit of tender loving care. And that it found on a farm in Cullinan outside South Africa’s capital city of Pretoria, where a new trend of growing baby ginger has started to emerge. The trend is so new, in fact, that when you Google the words “baby ginger”, you’re more likely to get page upon page of little red-haired babies than the actual root in your search results.
“What excites me about baby ginger is that it doesn’t feel like work,” says landscape architect-turned-grower Wouter Labuschagne. “I get such a kick out of seeing those first shoots emerging across a field outside the tropics. It’s almost like they’re saying, I told you so!”
Known for its substantial day-night temperature shifts, Pretoria would seem an unlikely home for this fragile little root, but by creating a near-hydroponic system in a series of tunnels, Wouter has successfully managed to simulate a tropical climate in which these plants have flourished. And because they’re grown in a controlled environment where the light and irrigation are constantly monitored and tweaked, the product is naturally pesticide free, with no genetic modification.
Ginger normally takes 8 months to mature fully, at which point it will have developed its characteristic light-brown skin. When harvested between 4 and 6 months, the skin is still thin and a delicate pink in colour. The flavour of baby ginger is in no way inferior. In fact, there are those who argue that it is cleaner and more pronounced, but it is a lot easier to work with, as it doesn’t require peeling.
Ginger and Brandy Cocktail
By whipping up a ginger cordial or fresh ginger syrup, you’ve got a great accompaniment to a brandy-based cocktail. For a refreshing (yet warming) cold cocktail, simply juice a baby ginger root.
prep: 30 minutes / makes: about 300 ml ginger syrup
for the ginger syrup
Combine 100 g baby ginger, 150 g (180 ml) caster sugar and 200 ml water in a blender. Pulse the mixture until fully combined. Strain the mixture through a mousseline cloth. Keep the strained fresh ginger in the fridge until you’re ready to use it. The fresh ginger syrup can also be frozen for future use.
for the brandy cocktail
Pour 50 ml of the fresh ginger syrup into 2 glasses. Bruise 8 mint leaves and divide them between the two glasses. Pour 25 ml brandy into each glass and top with a handful of crushed ice. Fill each glass with soda water.
Preserving ginger will yield a stockpile that you can use year-round to spice up anything from a baked sweet potato to a gammon roast.
prep: 1 hour | makes: about 600 ml | 2 medium glass jars
Slice 500 g baby ginger into 15 – 20 mm chunks. Place the sliced ginger in a medium-sized saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil. Cook the ginger for 40 minutes until tender; then drain in a colander and return the cooked ginger to the saucepan. Add 450 g (535 ml) caster sugar and 200 ml water. Set over a medium heat and bring to a simmer. Stir until the sugar has melted. Let it simmer for 20 minutes until the sugar syrup starts to reduce, stirring frequently. Spoon the warm ginger preserve into sterilised jars and seal immediately.
Frozen Ginger Mousse
You would be hard-pressed to come up with a more refined ending to any dinner: delicate cups of frozen ginger mousse are cold yet warming, sweet yet spicy, and send your guests home in a most agreeable frame of mind.
prep: 30 minutes + overnight | serves: 10 – 12
for the ginger cordial
Finely chop 100 g baby ginger. Combine the chopped ginger with 150 g (130 ml) caster sugar and 200 ml water in a small saucepan. Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium heat. Let it simmer until the liquid has reduced by a third (about 12 minutes).
for the mousse
Whisk 6 egg yolks and the 125 ml ginger cordial together in large bowl or double boiler until incorporated. Set the bowl over a bain-marie at medium heat. Use a spatula to gently stir the mixture until it starts to thicken and the temperature reaches 85 °C (about 10 minutes). Remove the bowl from the heat and stir the ginger-yolk mixture until it cools to room temperature. Set aside for later use. Whip 500 ml cream to soft peaks. Whip 4 egg whites just past soft peaks. To mix the mousse, gradually fold half of the ginger-yolk mixture into the egg whites. Fold the other half of the ginger-yolk mixture into the whipped cream. Gently fold both together and spoon into serving bowls (or cups); cover and freeze overnight.
Whether you like to keep a stash for forgotten birthdays and cake decorations, or you simply like to have it on hand for a daily immune-boosting snack, candied ginger will make your home smell like a confiserie when you make it from scratch.
prep: 1 hour | makes: about 450 g
Slice 400 g of baby ginger into 3 – 5 mm rounds. Place the sliced ginger in a medium saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and cook for 40 minutes until the ginger is tender. Drain in a colander. Return the cooked ginger to the saucepan, adding 400 g (475 ml) of castor sugar and mixing it through. Then place over a medium heat and stir the sugar until it has melted. Let it simmer and stir frequently. All the liquid should evaporate before the sugar starts to crystallise; this process takes about 15 minutes. Immediately spoon the warm crystallised ginger onto a sheet of baking paper in an even layer. Once cooled, store in an airtight container.