Zingy, unique, and unlike any other, ginger is a one of a kind spice used all across the world. Its bumpy, brown exterior gives way to a distinct aroma and flavor, popular in several cuisines. And its medicinal uses are seemingly never-ending; just a hint of this in food or tea can cure a number of illnesses.
There’s really nothing quite like ginger. Its unique flavor has cemented its popularity and use in many places, and the Philippines is no exception. Luya is a common ingredient in several stews, soups, and even dry dishes. Whether you pair it with proteins or vegetables, luya is sure to bring a fantastic kick of flavor that no other spice can make up for.
A whole lot of history
Ginger (or its scientific name Zingiber officinale) comes from Maritime Southeast Asia –– countries like Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, and our own Philippines. The earliest record of people cultivating ginger and other similar plants dates back centuries. Without even saying so explicitly, you can probably assume that since then ginger has garnered a rich and thriving history of its own.
The people of Maritime SEA back then, the Austronesians, regarded ginger as something incredibly important and even holy. The ginger plant had many uses beyond just eating, with people using its leaves to make mats. Ginger was even used to bless Austronesian ships, as well as to ask for healing, protection, and favor from spirits.
When the Austronesians brought ginger to places like India, the Pacific Islands, and even going as far as Hawaii, its prominence grew. In India specifically, traders from the Mediterranean and the Middle East came to take some ginger for their own. This was during the 1st Century –– almost 2000 years ago! Isn’t that crazy? Now, India still remains to be one of the leading producers and exporters of ginger worldwide.
Many people claim that famous philosopher Confucius ate ginger with every meal. In 406AD, ginger was sailing across the world, with the Chinese especially growing it in pots and carrying it in ships because they heard it helped cure scurvy. Ginger went as far as Europe, where people started important raw and preserved versions of it in the 14th century. In the UK, a pound of ginger cost one live sheep!
Keeping it in the family: Luya’s relatives
Ginger has two close relatives –– let’s call them cousins: turmeric and cardamom. All these spices originate from Asia and provide a distinct flavor to the dishes you put them in. But what makes luya similar, or different, from these two? Let’s analyze them one by one.
- Turmeric is one of the main ingredients in Indian curry. Its bright yellow appearance masks a flavor that is warm and slightly bitter. It’s also quite earthy. Most of the time, we see turmeric in its powder form, as opposed to ginger which is often preferred in its fresh form. Even in powder form, however, its flavor definitely packs a punch!
- Cardamom is the spice you commonly find in chai tea. It’s almost cinnamon-y in nature, but its taste is a lot stronger. Cardamom lends its fragrant aroma to several drinks and pastries; in Sweden, cardamom buns are a popular delicacy during an afternoon coffee break. It also works well in curries, masala and other dishes in desi cuisine –– just like its relatives.
A shapeshifting game-changer
Ginger is a spice that comes in a variety of forms, but here are its most prevalent ones:
This is the luya we’re most familiar with at supermarkets; its strange shape and hard texture make it difficult to miss. Fresh ginger is a staple in many kitchens, not just in the Philippines! This is because of how dynamic and useful it is. Its fresh and lively taste provides a refreshing bite to any recipe. Fresh ginger is perfect in marinades, and as a flavoring spice in stews, soups, and the like.
Most recipes will call for you to peel your fresh ginger before cooking it, so having a peeler or spoon onhand is recommended. You can also use your knife, but unless you have prior knowledge on how to use it, you might end up wasting a lot of the actual ginger. You can learn more about how to peel and mince fresh ginger here.
Almost all recipes call for fresh ginger because it’s hard to replicate that fresh taste any other way. Another great thing about fresh luya is that it’s inexpensive, and quite easy to look for in groceries.
By far, the best substitute for fresh luya is ground or powdered ginger. Powdered ginger is prevalent not only in food, but also in several medicines! In several herbal medicines that line grocery or convenience store shelves, ginger is a common ingredient. Its antibacterial properties and health benefits cannot go discounted.
One of the advantages powdered ginger has opposite fresh ginger is its shelf life. It’s a lot easier to keep and store ground ginger in your pantry than it is to keep it fresh; you run the risk of getting molds and other bacteria. Adding ginger powder to dishes like curries or masala also helps prevent excess, unwelcome gas. In rice, soup, meat, or wherever else, ginger powder is perfect for seasoning and spicing up just about anything!
The process of dehydrating ginger results in this spicier, drier variant of the seasoning. Dried ginger is what you commonly find in tea leaves, or to sprinkle onto food. It works in both sweet and savory cooking; you can use it to top your curry mixes, or on cookies and cakes! Either way, dried ginger lends its distinct taste to dishes that really enhances or adds layers to its flavor palate.
Dried ginger is also known to help with headaches and other ailments, like arthritis, nausea, and the common cold. They’re very easy to find in supermarkets as well! However, you could always opt to make your own. The process may sound rather daunting at first, but it is most definitely worth it. Drying ginger is a simple process, albeit one that requires a lot of time and patience. You can find out more on how to dry ginger here.
Are you a Japanese food lover? If you’ve ever been to a Japanese restaurant and ordered a tray of sushi or sashimi, you’ll find that these often come with several other companions. These include the umami soy sauce, the spicy wasabi, and a sometimes yellow, sometimes pink partner that truly completes the platter.
Surprise: these small strips are actually pickled ginger! Known as gari or amazu shoga in Japanese cuisine, these pieces of ginger help in cleansing your palate while you’re enjoying your sushi. While sushi is great, the fishy taste and texture can sometimes produce a sense of umay. Gari is there in order to prevent that and ensure that you have an enjoyable experience with your meal.
Pickled ginger is an easy find at any Asian supermarket. However, it is also incredibly easy to make your own from the comfort of your own home!
Ginger that you keep in a sugar and salt-based liquid is called preserved ginger. This variant maintains its initial flavors, while also providing a sweetness that complements ginger’s distinct taste.
A popular variant of preserved ginger is called stem ginger in syrup. The little balls of ginger that come with the delightful syrup make a wonderful addition to both cooked and baked recipes. Like dried ginger, it’s wonderful in dishes that can satisfy both an empty tummy and a sweet tooth.
Find out how to make your own preserved ginger recipe here –- you’d be surprised at how simple the process can be!
The last ginger variant I’ll be talking about is the fresh, vibrant, and oh so delectable candied ginger. I know plenty of Filipinos who carry around luya candy in their bags as a treat to alleviate hunger. I personally think ginger candy is nearly, or just as effective as coffee flavored candies are in keeping people awake. Its bright taste can really wake up your taste buds, and it’s a refreshing treat to have, especially during hot summer days. Candied ginger is also a great antidote for nausea and headaches.
While it works great as a standalone, you can also use candied ginger to highlight your other desserts! Gingersnaps, sugar cookies, and homemade jams and jellies are just some of the dishes candied ginger can work its wonders on. Not only does it add to the sweetness, but it’s able to cut through rich flavors and provide a deeper palate, giving it a taste you won’t get enough of.
This amount of ginger variants seems plentiful already –– but there are so many other ways you can enjoy this wonderful spice. What type of ginger do you most commonly have at home? Which variant is your favorite?
What recipes can I use luya in?
Now that we know how flexible ginger can be, it’s no surprise that luya is such a popular and well loved companion in the kitchen. In recipes sweet and savory, hot and cold, it easily comes to the rescue in any dish we’re making.
If you’re in need of new dish ideas that incorporate this fantastic ingredient, look no further! Here are some of my favorite recipes that include ginger –– maybe they’ll become your favorites, too!
Tender beef in a scrumptious marinade –– what’s not to love? Stir frying is the perfect solution for those who want a quick meal but need to be on the go. Cooking your sirloin strips on high heat with a variety of other ingredients gives you a dish that’s delectable from start to finish. The taste of luya in this recipe really bleeds into not just your meat but your other vegetables, giving it that extra bite you didn’t know you needed.
Ginger Beef Stir Fry is straightforward and simple –– no frills necessary for a delicious dish. Just as it’s a favorite in many Chinese restaurants, this meal can become a favorite in your own dining room, too!
This native Filipino soup is a favorite alongside flavorful dishes like crispy pata. Despite having a subtle taste, pesang manok leaves a strong impact –– and it’s largely in thanks to its delightful ginger broth.
Pesang manok is a wonderful comfort dish. On rainy days when you’re stuck indoors, a warm bowl of soup can really soothe and lift your spirits. The tender chicken meat combined with the unique flavors of ginger broth are a timeless combination –– truly chicken soup for the soul.
if you’re not a big fan of chicken but still want to try this yummy soup, an alternative is this Pesang Isda (Fish in Ginger Broth). This recipe has more soup than its original counterpart, and involves the healthy, leafy malunggay to accompany the ginger’s calming taste. Just like pesang manok, this dish can give you a sense of comfort during cold seasons (or maybe, if it’s in the summer, when you have your aircon on). For pesang isda, you can opt to use a whole fish or pieces of fish fillet. The former will require you to devein and clean your fish first, but the extra flavors that will steep into the broth make it worth it.
Another family favorite at the Chinese restaurant dining table is steamed fish. Sesame oil, soy sauce, and ginger are just some of the ingredients that come together in order to make this dish shine.
The combination of both prep and cooking time is only about half an hour! However, it is integral that you have a steamer onhand before cooking. It is steamed fish, after all. By allowing the fish to sit in the steamer alongside your soy sauce and ginger mixture, your fish is able to soak up all these succulent and mouthwatering flavors. The result is a dish with immaculate taste that pairs great with warm white rice!
Rich and creamy, the wonderful taste of crabs in sweet coconut milk is only highlighted by the strong and distinct flavor of ginger in the mix. The presence of luya in this ginataang alimasag helps the dish strike the balance between sweet and savory. It is refreshing and filling, and one of my favorites to make when I see fresh crabs at the market.
I love to cook any kind of seafood in coconut milk –– crab isn’t the exception, it’s part of the rule! Whether you’re making ginataang isda or ginataang hipon, throwing ginger into the recipe makes for the absolute perfect bite.
Ginger stars opposite another spice in this classic dish –– star anise! Star anise has a delicate yet strong flavor, heavily influencing any dish it works its magic on. In that sense, we can say it’s a lot like ginger. Pares is a dish that elevates almost all of our senses; if the sight of it is enough to make your mouth water, what more its trademark aroma?
Luya, star anise, and soy sauce prove to be a heavenly combo, producing the pares stew we all know and love. And with a nice generous portion of garlic rice to accompany it? There’s just so much to love!
Don’t ever listen to anyone who says ginger is only good for savory dishes! Whether or not it’s the holiday season, a bite into a gingerbread cookie is enough to put you in good spirits. This dessert is what many aspire to be: the perfect blend of sugar, spice, and everything nice.
Gingerbread is a great dessert option for those who don’t like to go too overboard with their sweets. The spice’s classic bite and kick of flavor remains evident in these sweet treats, but the end result is far from unpleasant. Making gingerbread cakes and cookies is a delightful way to spice up your oven’s repertoire –– it also makes for a great bonding activity with your loved ones.
Salabat (Ginger Tea)
A tea made from luya extracts, salabat is fresh and bright on the tongue. It’s a satisfying, healthy drink you can enjoy at the end of a long day –– or at the start of a new one! Whether you have it hot or iced, there’s no denying that it not only tastes good, but keeps your body feeling good, too.
Ginger for good health: Health benefits and nutrition facts
We can’t have an article about ginger without, of course, including the many ways it is helpful for our bodies! Health should be of the utmost importance to everybody –– especially in these uncertain times. Luckily, ingredients like ginger are around to ensure that we are as healthy as can be.
Since people started using it centuries ago, ginger has become a beacon and source of great health. Here are some of the health benefits luya offers:
- Treatment for cancers (ovarian and colon, specifically)
- A remedy for motion and morning sickness
- Relief for heartburn
- Beating the common cold or flu
- Prevention of kidney damage
You can read more about these different benefits here. But even with this impressive list already, ginger still has so many other ways of helping and curing illnesses –– and providing a yummy treat any time of day.
Flavorful and fragrant, ginger is a spice that has been around for a long time –– and is guaranteed to stick around for a long while longer. Don’t be afraid to try ginger in your recipes today! You won’t regret it!