Ginger tea to Germans is starting to feel like what Windex brand glass cleaner was to the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. To my knowledge it hasn’t been used to get rid of warts and zits, but, given ginger’s range of uses across history, it’s a pretty fair comparison.
Coming into 2023, my health wasn’t the greatest. After battling a triple whammy flu-cold-sore throat, I enjoyed a brief period of clear nasal passages before hay fever was upon me. It got so bad that people were only allowed to bless me every ten sneezes. Seriously, if snot were a currency, I’d be Bezos-level rich. Only now, in the time that I am writing this, does it seem to be calming down. But, mornings that start with a stuffed, leaky nose and one watery eye are a reminder that I am still not truly free. ‘Try ginger tea,’ calming and repetitive like a Gregorian chant, was the phrase that echoed among my students while my throat and stomach throbbed in protest every time I tried to suppress my disruptive sneezes.
Typically, I don’t take medicine for colds and allergies, but this year has tested my resolve. Walking into pharmacies in Germany, I enjoy the distinctly savoury smell of what I presume are herbal tinctures. Of course, here is where you pick up your prescriptions and pain killers, but it’s also where you buy heatable pillows filled with cherry pits, concentrated fruit juices, and gentle herbal supplements.
My problem, if you really want to call it that, was the lack of a ‘one-stop shopping’ type of tablet. Germany is unique in my own experiences when it comes to acquiring medicine to treat common illnesses. The usual cold treatments are meant to be a complement to soup, ginger tea, and plenty of rest.
However, a harsh reality is that, as a freelancer, I don’t get paid when I don’t work. There are no boxes of generic medicines simply marked ‘Cold Medicine’ or ‘Allergy Tablets’ which you can buy over the counter and which seem to fix you up within a couple of days.
In that long period of sickness, I brewed pots of ginger tea and threw in cinnamon sticks and oranges for an added boost. I ate foods laden with enough garlic to supply a restaurant kitchen for a month. I drank spicy broths with multiple forms of chilis that left me a little dizzy between drawing breaths against the searing heat and my stuffy nose. Ginger tea – it absolutely must be fresh – seems to be a cherished line of defense against a range of ills: colds, allergies, undefined sniffles and sore throats, headaches, skincare, immune boosting…etc.
Originating somewhere in Southeast Asia, ginger was an important cargo on major sea trading routes for thousands of years. This nubbly root – which we often allow the last remaining piece of to shrivel up into something resembling what lurks on the unvacuumed floor beneath your sofa, (be honest) – was once a rare and precious commodity.
Although ginger is now thought of mostly in a culinary context, it had many other uses from perfumes to preservatives, charms and antidotes. Its use as a food item came later and it’s safe to say that most homes stock ginger in some form or another. Funnily enough though, when I look at things I’ve cooked on a weekly basis – if you’re just getting into cooking I highly recommend you keep a notebook – ginger isn’t something I use regularly. But when it’s there, it’s there. A taste which is so strongly imprinted in our sensory archives.
When I go for sushi, I save the pickled ginger for last and eat it in greedy mouthfuls. In the summertime, there’s nothing like a dark n’ stormy with a good quality ginger beer and in the winter, it isn’t December without gingerbread cookies and chocolate dipped crystallized ginger. Ginger is not meant to even out an off-kilter mix of flavours, nor will it just sink quietly into the thick of the other ingredients. When it’s fresh, it announces itself in every dish as a burst of spicy, earthy juice that zips across your palate. It alerts your senses without producing the same cringe as it would if you were to bite into a cinnamon stick or a piece of chili.
Kichidi, dal, and brothy jook were the foods my mother made us when we were sick. The taste sensations were mild and the textures silky. The real magic lay in slices or sticks of ginger. Perched on top, they could be picked up and eaten one at a time. Or, even more appealing, was when everything was mixed together so that an unexpected bite flooded your sore throat with warmth. Even now, there’s a childish delight in imagining the sick germs screeching in protest as they melt under waves of ginger juice like the Wicked Witch of the West.
As an adult without the luxury of lounging in bed on a school day with a stack of books while someone brings me food, I had to keep powering through weeks of misery with nothing more than my resolve, multivitamins, and expensive ginger shots. The best quality ones that I could find were organic and mostly ginger – which I know should be obvious, but try reading ingredient labels some time – with some other type of fruit juice to take away the bitterness, and maybe lemon juice. They taste delicious enough that you have to stop yourself from cracking open five more of those tiny, glass bottles. I don’t actually know if it’s bad to drink more than one per day, but the price tag was enough to stay my hand.
I was desperate and hoping for some sort of short term culinary attack plan that might finally break through whatever fortress these hideous viral invaders were trying to construct in my body. With some exceptions, plus a weakness for crinkle cut sea salt chips, I’d say I’m a pretty healthy eater. Although, I put good food into my body less because I think it’s going to transform me and more because I enjoy it. Which is how I think it should be.
Not being a food scientist or a nutritionist, any attempt at trying to analyze and break down exactly how the components of something healthy is going to help or transform me, just ends with me blaming my own body for not producing the desired result. It’s ridiculous to do so, and yet, my mind can’t break out of those intrusive thoughts that anything related to aging, lower fitness levels, or being sick, affects me because I’m not consuming the right good things.
Ginger is an ingredient that consistently tops an ever-expanding list of superfoods, along with pretty much all the other mainstays of the cuisine I grew up with and continue to make to this day. But, call something a superfood and again I’ve trapped myself in the blame game every time something doesn’t work the way the marketing suggests. There are a lot of healing properties in ginger. Among other things, it helps reduce inflammation, can boost your immune system, aids digestion, and it can help soothe an upset stomach.
Even so, marketing campaigns often slyly suggest that we should equate the consumption of such superfoods to lifelong health and youth. If you look old or get sick, you’re the one to blame for not splashing out forty euros on a bag of dried acai berry powder. There are health and wellness influencers on TikTok, eating spoonfuls of ghee (a traditional Indian clarified butter) for the supposed health benefits of consuming it pure. Is that where we draw the line? When the exotic appeal of superfoods has people literally downing globs of fat, I’d at least venture to say that that things are out of hand.
The real trend isn’t the proliferation of ghee shots, matcha smoothies, and turmeric lattes. It’s reading the news to find out that once again, western science has ‘discovered’ another non-western ingredient and has rewritten its existing identity in the context of health and wellness, before throwing it to the capitalistic wolves and wishing it godspeed.
Superfood as a term didn’t even originate as something medical. In the early twentieth century, studies were published in American medical journals about the health benefits of bananas including a study which showed bananas were beneficial to people suffering from celiac’s disease. (We now know that this is simply because bananas do not contain gluten)
The United Fruit Company (precursor to Chiquita) coined the term when they jumped on these studies for their promotional material in order to market their bananas. In the 1920s, UFC went a step further by hiring physicians to publicly declare that babies should have mashed bananas as a regular part of their diet.
In the same decade, UFC also began marketing the aptly named ‘Great White Fleet,’ a cruise liner which took passengers to visit United Fruit Company controlled countries. Decades later bananas are such a normal part of our lives that they have spawned novelty items like the container to hold a single banana for your packed lunch.
Given the widespread trade and use of ginger across the globe, I haven’t found a specific cultural identity surrounding ginger that’s in danger of being erased. It does, however, make me think about the number of cooking shows I’ve watched where the chef or the contestants give a dish an ‘Asian influence’ by adding ginger and soy sauce. Erasing the complexity and versatility of a dish or ingredient by limiting its scope seems to the name of the problematic game.
That being said, we’d all be pretty hungry if we decided to stop eating all foods associated with colonization. Besides which, it’s a major disservice to the wealth of dishes that have emerged under colonial rule. Even as generations continue to grapple with a legacy of pain, food is something which endures, and does so brightly.
For anyone who believes food is not political, think again. Foods like bánh mì from Vietnam and Louisiana-style beignets from the southern United States are beloved foods which live on as testament that something beautiful can still come from the thick of so much ugliness and violence. It’s a digestible archive where you experience history through taste, smell, texture, and memory.
The warm weather is taking a long time to show up and now that I’m finally (mostly) healthy again, I can drink my favorite kind of ginger (rather, gingery) tea as made ( loosely, since we don’t believe in exact proportions) in the style of my great aunt.
In a pot of cold water, drop in two golden raisins (I don’t know why, but no matter how big the pot, the number of raisins never changed), a couple of cloves, some cardamom (bashed open but with the seeds still in the pod), a cinnamon stick split in half crosswise, and several to many hearty slices of unpeeled ginger (pummel the ginger a little bit to release the juices before adding it to the pot).
Once the water is at a hard boil, throw in your black tea bag of choice. Growing up, we were a Tetley’s family, but I know some families preferred Lipton or PG Tips. Lower the heat immediately to stop the boiling. How low you go depends on your own cooker, but everything just needs to simmer so that the flavours being extracted don’t get bitter. At least this is how I was taught.
Brew the tea to your shade of choice. I tend to go a bit darker because of the next step. Slowly pour in any dairy or nondairy milk of your choice. The proportion takes a little bit of practice. The resulting color shouldn’t be overwhelmed by milk, but the exact tea-kissed shade of the resulting beverage also depends on the base color of the milk you’re using.
After a humble apology to any tea or masala chai enthusiasts with different ideas whom you may have offended, dunk using your favorite brand of biscuit and enjoy.
(I stopped buying ginger shots by the way.)