Sao mặt bạn nhăn như khỉ ăn gừng?
Why are you wrinkling your face like a monkey eating ginger?
(A Vietnamese expression)
I don’t know what I’d do without ginger. I use so much of it that I grow it in the garden and yet still never have enough. I end up cutting pieces off rhizomes I’ve just put into the soil, before they even have time to put up some leaves.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is native to Asia, as are its relatives, turmeric, the galangals and the cardamoms, but it’s cultivated in many countries, including Hawaii, Jamaica, Fiji and also in West Africa.
In the Vietnamese kitchen, ginger, called gừng, is used fresh, or preserved as a chewy candy called mứt. (The pronunciation of the letter Ư in gừng and mứt is similar to that of the double O in wood (IPA: 〈ɯ〉).
Phở wouldn’t be the same without ginger—I learned from a Vietnamese chef to char thick unpeeled slices of it before adding it to the pot when making the beef-based broth. I also use it for chicken broth, add it liberally to bamboo chicken, and combine it with fish sauce-based dipping sauces for duck or fried fish.
The spicy steamed snails we buy from itinerant vendors come speckled with red chilis and golden slivers of ginger. It’s an important ingredient in Vietnamese snacks and desserts too. Chè trôi nước is glutinous rice balls floating in ginger syrup (which you can read about in this Gastronomy Blog post.) One year, in preparation for Tết (the Lunar New Year), I had to grate huge piles of ginger and chop dozens of chilis for cabbage pickles and pickled meats. These, along with the mứt gừng and another candied fruit preserve called ô mai gừng are necessities in my family for Tết.
My mother-in-law buys big bagfuls of mứt gừng at the market if there’s no time to make it at home. She says the best comes from Kim Long Village. I think I and my grandmother-in-law eat most of it. We put it out with tea for the steady stream of Tết guests, but most of them prefer to crack watermelon seeds or nibble at the savoury or pickled dishes. Still, my mother-in-law hides the preserved ginger for me. She knows I’m not a fan of sweet foods and don’t eat candy, so she buys the hottest, least sweet mứt gừng she can find. Grandmother hunts through the cupboards looking for it and then comes looking for me to ask where the latest hiding place is. Like everything else, home-made preserved ginger is best. It’s not hard to make, but it takes time and you can’t leave it on the stove and walk away.
Making mứt gừng (Vietnamese preserved ginger)
Of course, preserved ginger is popular in other cultures too, and I’ve been meaning to try a Korean recipe that includes pine nuts and cinnamon. In Western cultures, the first step for making candied ginger is to boil it in several waters to reduce its hotness, sometimes even soaking it overnight first, but the recipes I learned from my husband’s grandmother and from a Vietnamese friend involve boiling it only once, for about five minutes.
Both of them taught me to cut my ginger slices paper thin and boil them in water with the juice of a lime to keep the ginger from oxidising and turning brown. Then I put it in a strainer and rinse it well until any brownness is gone, and the ginger looks white. After leaving it to drain well, I mix it with sugar and let it sit for a couple of hours. Then I heat up a cast iron pan over medium-low heat. I add the sugar-coated ginger and stir it until the sugar begins to dry. This takes about fifteen minutes or so.
Before it dries completely and it’s still supple, I remove it from the heat and flatten each piece, one by one. At this point, some people roll it in sugar to coat any bare spots, but I like it less sweet, so I skip this step. I leave it for an hour or so to dry before putting it in a bag or a jar. Protected from humidity, it keeps for a long time, but I’ve noticed that the slices eventually become brittle and the flavour does deteriorate.
Young ginger, cream-coloured and tipped with the palest pink, costs more and has less bite. It’s much less fibrous and it’s wonderful for a delicate creamy snack featuring very soft tofu in gingery syrup. I like this dessert more than the rice balls in ginger syrup because it tends to be less sweet. Both desserts can be served hot or cold, depending on the weather. Its Vietnamese name is rather long: đậu hũ nước đường (tofu in ginger water), but in Huế we just call it đậu hũ. (It’s basically the same as the Chinese dou fu fa, 豆腐花, that’s so often served at dim sum.)
We always know the tofu dessert lady is coming up our lane, her yoke over her shoulders, when we hear her call out “Ai đậu hũ không?” (Does anyone want tofu dessert?) As she nears our door, we step out and she lowers her yoke, with its cabinet at one end and an insulated clay pot of soft tofu at the other, to the ground. She takes bowls out of the cabinet, and holds her flat metal scoop almost horizontal to cut thin slices from the creamy tofu inside the clay pot. Then she ladles on a little of the gingery water and adds a sprinkle of sugar, a squeeze of lime and extra ginger shreds on top for those who want it. Without the extra sugar, the sweetness is barely a whisper—exactly the way I like it.
When we’re finished, we hand her bowls back and she washes them in a dishpan full of soapy water that she keeps in the bottom of the cabinet. She hoists the yoke up onto her shoulder and continues deeper into the lane. The water moves with the rhythm of her steps but it never sloshes over, and the stacked ceramic bowls never fall.
Ginger for good health
Ginger is a hot, or yang, food. It goes well therefore with cooling foods, like boiled chicken or poached fish, and it’s considered a restorative for pregnant women and women who’ve just given birth.
The list of medicinal uses of ginger in Việt Nam (and in the West too) is long. It’s especially useful for illnesses and discomforts resulting from cold weather or other yin causes. My husband’s grandmother sucks on fresh ginger or mứt gừng during the cold, drizzly Huế winters, and when we have sore throats, mứt gừng dulls the pain. My mother-in-law was surprised to see me treat a cold with a hot drink of ginger simmered in water with some honey and lime. “Oh, how do you know our old remedies?” she asked, but I learned this recipe from my father when I was little.
Bruises can be massaged with crushed ginger to reduce swelling and help them fade faster. I’ve read that some Vietnamese also use flattened pieces of ginger to cạo gió (scrape the wind), for older people suffering cold-induced conditions. When someone in my husband’s family feels dizzy or exhausted, or anything else attributed to a noxious wind, they say he has trúng gió (caught a wind). Someone will treat the sufferer by scraping the wind, making long rapid strokes on the patient’s back with a coin or spoon and some stinky medicinal oil as a lubricant, until a pattern of red marks appear on the skin. Though it’s not supposed to be painful if done properly, it can be. Still, sufferers always say they feel much better afterwards, though maybe that’s because it feels so good when the scraping stops. I asked my husband if his family ever scrapes the wind with ginger, but he said they don’t do this in Huế.
Whenever any of my in-laws is sick, it’s practically guaranteed that they will eat cháo (rice porridge), often flavoured with ginger. Even when I broke my wrist, my mother-in-law insisted I had to eat cháo to restore my strength and heal more quickly, and she put in plenty of beef, chilies and ginger.
When the weather is cold and damp, and especially if we’ve been caught in the rain, we drink ginger tea to warm up and it’s a popular drink at the local cafés on those melancholy days when you wonder if you’ll ever see the sun again. But ginger tea is refreshing on hot summer days too, probably because ginger induces sweating, which cools the body.
Fresh green tea leaves brewed with ginger is a simple and traditional drink for farmers in the fields, but I’ve found it in a few of Huế’s teahouses, including the Café Nón Huế (Huế Conical Hat Café), where they serve us tea in traditional pots over tea candles, and saucers with slices of ginger or licorice on the side. The scent of the tea and the gentle movement of the Perfume River lulls us and we sip slowly. The flickering flame keeps the tea hot for as long as it takes us to finish.
Buying, growing and keeping ginger
In Canada, most of the ginger comes from China. Sadly, the same was true in Việt Nam for a while, because people thought the much bigger, fatter, paler Chinese ginger looked more attractive. But Vietnamese ginger has more flavour, and the ginger from Thừa Thiên Huế province, my husband’s grandmother told me, is famous for its hotness.
Việt Nam finally banned Chinese ginger last year after the Plant Protection Department discovered high levels of aldicarb, a highly toxic pesticide, in ginger samples from major markets in Hà Nội and Saigon; Chinese farmers were applying it illegally to their ginger crops. (Aldicarb is illegal in Canada too. Although it was removed from the market in 1996, residual aldicarb still sometimes shows up in Canadian groundwater samples.)
In an article in Thanh Nien News about the banning of aldicarb in Việt Nam, the writer says “Chinese ginger is bigger and better-looking than Vietnamese ginger, and remains fresh for a whole year after harvest, while Vietnamese ginger rots after a few months.” Well, that should be a clue right there. I don’t buy Chinese ginger anymore, but it isn’t always easy to find ginger from other countries. I grow my own from organic rhizomes that I buy at the local health food store.
These are the latest ones, which came from Peru. They’re small and hot like the ginger my mother-in-law buys at the Đông Ba Market. Organic ginger is also much less likely to have been treated with growth retardants, so it’s better not only for eating, but for growing. If I’m planning to plant them, I look for pieces with developing growth buds.
It can take up to six weeks for a freshly planted rhizome to sprout. They send up a few spikes which open up into palm-like leaves, eventually reaching a height of about one metre. After three months, the rhizomes have grown enough for me to start cutting pieces to cook with.
The plants naturally die back when the weather gets cooler, or after eight or nine months in warm climates. When I bring them inside in the fall, they go semi-dormant. Even so, rhizomes left undisturbed will keep putting out roots and preparing for the next round.
Ginger freezes well. It can be kept in the fridge for a few weeks, in the vegetable drawer or in a baggie, but it will start to soften, darken or even grow mold. Kept on the counter, it tends to dry out. But I discovered that if I keep the rhizomes in a wide, shallow planter, covered with an inch of soil, it stays fresh all winter. I water it very lightly every month or so, just enough to keep it from drying out completely. Overwatering while it’s resting will cause it to rot. Whenever I need some, I pull a piece out of the soil, cut off a suitable bit and rebury the rest. In the spring, if I have any left, it begins to sprout again. I find my ginger does best in rich soil, in an area sheltered from the wind. It loves heat and humidity.
Culinary ginger has odd little flowers that emerge from bracts, but because only clumps of rhizomes two years old or more will bloom, I’ve never seen flowers on mine. Time to plant more ginger!