Knowing that I wanted to make a ginger-watermelon salad later today, I woke up with questions about ginger dancing in my head:
- When did people first try using ginger as a spice? When did they figure out the knobby root was edible?
- When did gingerbread become a thing?
- When and why did the baby name (and nickname) “Ginger” come into vogue? I mean, Cinnamon, Tarragon and Cardamom never became popular names. Why Ginger?
- If ginger usually refers to something spicy, where did the meaning of the word “gingerly” come from?
Here is what I’ve found after rooting around for a bit…
Origins of Ginger
The word ginger comes from the Sanskrit word for “horn body,” which shows that ancient people recognized how odd-looking this spice was too.
So how did people figure out that this gnarly, fibrous spice was edible? Well… by eating it!
According to Michael Castleman in The New Healing Herbs (Rodale Books), legend has it that Chinese Emperor Shen Nung (or Shennong) experimented with hundreds of medicinal herbs. This was a risky enterprise in 3000 B.C. that unfortunately cost Shen Nung his life when he ate a poisonous plant. The Chinese use of ginger spread to Greece and Rome. Elsewhere, American Indians also used ginger medicinally.
How do you get from ginger as a medicinal herb to sweet gingerbread served at Christmas? The Greeks, who loved imported ginger, wrapped ginger in sweet bread for a stomach-soothing dessert, says Castleman, after they learned that the Chinese used it to treat nausea. Eventually, sweet bread became sweet cookies. In fact, gingerbread is quite possibly the world’s first cookie! And gingerbread houses and gingerbread men? Those came from Europe, during Medieval times.
A Baby Named Ginger
Ginger has been a popular name for nearly a century, although most often as a nickname for Virginia. (That was the case for Ginger Rogers, born Virginia Katherine McMath.) The progression from “Virginia” to “Ginger” probably also explains why there are few people named Cardamom in the world. Alas.
Why does “gingerly” mean cautiously? Bad news here, I’m afraid. The roots of “gingerly” do not grow from the Sanskrit “çṛŋgavēra,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Instead, they most likely sprout from the Old French gensor, meaning “gent”–that’s right, the basis of the word gentleman, genteel, gentrification and more. Gingerly first meant “daintily” before it took on its modern meaning.
If that last bit of news was a let down, let me give you something to make up for it. How ’bout a ginger-watermelon salad recipe? This salad bursts with flavor and tastes so refreshing that it’s perfect for August picnics. Enjoy this colorful spicy-sweet blend!
- 1 small poblano pepper, minced
- 1-2 cucumbers, diced
- ½ cup sliced green onion
- 3-4 tablespoons minced ginger and carrots (see below)
- About ¼ of a medium-sized watermelon, cut into small cubes (save for last)
- Juice of 1 lime
- ¼ cup rice vinegar
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2-3 tablespoons olive oil
- freshly-ground black pepper
- Mix all salad ingredients, saving the watermelon for last. Then add enough cubed watermelon so that there is a rich, colorful contrast throughout.
- Shake up the dressing in a jar and pour over salad. Mix thoroughly.
- 1 cup ginger, peeled and sliced very thin
- ½ cup carrots, sliced thin
- ¾ cup sugar
- ¾ cup water
- ¾ cup rice vinegar
- 1½ teaspoons kosher salt
- Fill a sterilized jar ¾ full with ginger and carrots.
- Simmer sugar, vinegar, salt and water, stirring frequently, to dissolve sugar. Bring it to a boil.
- Pour over ginger.
- Refrigerate overnight and use within two weeks.
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