Kerala, Ginger & da Gama

It seems fitting that, after two weeks travelling around India and feeling a bit rickshaw-sick and travel weary, I decided I needed some ginger in my life. Some fiery, soothing, delicious ginger.

I arrived in Bangkok, Thailand this past Sunday night, nursing a bout of travel sickness after my departure from Kochi, India. I arrived on the eve of anti-government protests that have threatened to shutdown the city of Bangkok. Indeed on day 4 of the protests, there doesn't seem to be any sign of letting up. Check out The Guardian for the latest news on the situation here. Thank you to my brother Colin and his family for being such welcoming and wonderful hosts!

Fortunately, with plenty of time ahead to explore the city, I decided it's a good week to lay low and reflect on my recent adventures, as well as concoct various ginger-infused remedies for myself and my big brother who's sick with the flu. Ginger is known throughout many cultures for its soothing effect on the throat as well as the stomach - in the U.S. it's even prescribed for morning sickness.

Keralan Ginger Sparkler 

A simple way to enjoy the fresh (and healing!) flavor of ginger.

In any type of glass you desire, combine:

1 teaspoon ginger puree (see below for prep method!)
Juice of 1/2 lime
1-2 TB simple syrup
8 oz cold cold Soda water
ice (optional)

Though India is the largest producer of ginger rhizomes in the world, I didn't encounter the spice in bulk until Mark and I walked the streets of Mattancherry one steamy morning. While motorcycles, rickshaws and tinted-windowed sedans stirred up dirt from the streets that filled our noses and blurred our vision, once the dust settled the air was filled with the piquant nip of dried ginger and the warm frisky scent of Malabar pepper. Here I am, I thought, in the dusty old heart of the spice trade.

Mattancherry, or Jew Town, is the historic center of the spice trade. Located in an area of Cochin known as Fort Kochi, this ocean-flanked area is where Vasco da Gama, legendary Portuguese explorer, died in the year 1524. Vasco da Gama is most known for completing the first successful voyage from Europe to India in 1498 (sorry, Chris Columbus, you found America instead!). This successful voyage, and subsequent others, would open the route to Europe for the trade of spices, removing the "middleman" of traders in the Middle East, and establishing a line of trade that allowed spices to be valued like gold.

Why Jew town? Sephardic Jews populated a segment of the island of Fort Cochin when seeking asylum in the late 15th century after expulsion from Iberia. Though most emigrated to Israel in the 1950's following India's independence, there remain several synagogues and Jewish cemeteries that give the area a unique character. And while many spice traders do still remain in Jew town, the majority operate out of Ernakulum, across the shore.

Ginger, no doubt one of the spices that huddled in the bowels of da Gama's ships crossing the Arabian sea, is believed by some to be botanically native to India. While its diaspora is seen from Jamaica (ginger beer!) to Japan (pickled ginger!) it's not necessarily a flavor one thinks of as distinctly Indian. Yet its cousins turmeric (see Aromatum recipe from last spring!) and galangal certainly are known to pop up all over menus throughout India.

As I learned in a cooking class I took from a wonderful chef named Maria in Fort Kochi, in addition to garlic and brown mustard seeds, ginger is a crucial flavor-building block for Keralan dishes. She taught us how to add a bit of crushed ginger early on in the cooking, whether it be a cabbage dish like Veggie Thoran where the ginger removes the sulfurous-stink of the vegetable, or a lentil dish like dahl, where the ginger lifts the overall flavor, giving it spark and warmth.


1/2 lb fresh ginger
1/4 cup water
1/4 teaspoon salt


Peel the ginger (break it into chunks if it makes it easier to peel.) Another method is to BOIL the ginger and the peel will come right off. 
Roughly chop and place in a blender or mini Cuisinart with the water and salt.
Blend thoroughly until it reaches the consistency of applesauce, adding a teensy bit more of water if it's not breaking down. Some chunks may remain, and that's ok!

Place in a small tupperware container in the freezer and use as needed.

*Note: You will notice that after freezing, a white layer will form on the bottom of the container - this is fine, it is just a substance that precipitates from the puree. It is however very bitter, so try to only use the top layer of your ginger puree. 

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