Ginger is closely related to turmeric, cardamom and galangal. Similar to other plants, ginger is a very complex mixture of compounds, containing several hundred known constituents, including beta-carotene, capsaicin, caffeic acid and curcumin.
The pungency in ginger is derived from the principle compounds gingerol, shogaol and zingerone.
Gingerol is the active component in fresh ginger, and is related to capsaicin, which is the active component in chilli peppers. Zingerone – the least pungent compound – occurs when gingerol is cooked, while shogaol – which is twice as pungent – occurs when gingerol is dried.
Found extensively in the lush tropical jungles in South Asia, ginger is thought to have originated on the Indian subcontinent. The ginger plants that grow in India show the largest amount of genetic variation, implying that the plant has grown longest in that region.
Ginger was first exported from Asia in the first century AD along the lucrative Spice Route. It made its appearance in the Mediterranean over 2000 years ago with the Arab traders, who brought it to the Middle East then across to the Red Sea, where it was sold to the Greeks and Romans.
Records from ancient Rome show that imported ginger was taxed as it made its way ashore at Alexandria. With the fall of Rome, ginger and its uses were lost to most of Europe until the 11th century, when it made a comeback. It was desirable not only for its culinary benefits and medicinal properties, but also for its trade value.
By 1128, Marseilles started placing a tariff on ginger imports, followed by Paris in 1296. In the 13th and 14th centuries, the value of a pound of ginger was equivalent to the cost of a sheep. By the 14th century, ginger had made its way around Europe, and became the most popular spice after black pepper.
By medieval times, ginger was being imported in preserved form to be used in sweets. Queen Elizabeth I of England was said to be very fond of the spice, and is accredited for the famous gingerbread men that are now customary at Christmas in Europe and North America.