This Cheap Produce Staple Is the Secret to Cooking Indian Food at Home
Or Chinese food. It’s super-easy to use, and you should always have it on hand.
Pushing yourself, as a cook, often means first wrapping your head around one new ingredient. Whether it’s garam masala, wasabi, chicken liver, salt cod, or roe, there’s often one small, innocent-looking barrier between you and the cuisine you pine to cook at home.
Sometimes it’s something so inexpensive and easily available that you just feel silly about it. For many of us, that’s ginger. We reach for the powdered version in the red-capped container. We skip it in recipes. “How do you peel it, again? Seems like a hassle.”
Ginger is cheap as chips, super-easy to use, and makes a cameo in almost every cookbook I love. A quick skim of my current go-tos—Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking; Madhur Jaffrey’s Quick & Easy Indian Cooking; Dinner in an Instant: 75 Modern Recipes for Your Pressure Cooker—all feature fresh ginger. Fat coins of it plop into Instant Pot bone broths. It brightens a Chinese shiitake-pork soup. Jaffrey uses it in everything from saag gosht (beef or lamb with spinach) to saag bhaji (spinach with ginger and green chiles) in addition to her excellent hard-boiled eggs masala. Though I’m an avid home cook, for a long time, I simply didn’t keep fresh ginger around, and finally realized it stood between me and cooking more of the Indian cuisine I love.
I reached out to Priya Krishna, food writer and author of the forthcoming Indian-ish. Krishna has been splitting her time between Dallas and New York City as she worked with her mother, a onetime globe-trotting software engineer, on a cookbook that is “60 percent Indian, 40 percent something else.” The book will reflect her mom’s ingenuity as she cooked a mélange of dishes that reflected both her heritage and her travels. Think: roti pizza, saag with feta instead of paneer, and taquitos using roti, said Krishna.
Ginger is ubiquitous in Indian cuisine, and Krishna’s family always had it on the table, julienned and in a jar with lime juice and salt—a quick pickle. It was employed “to add a little bit of freshness” to all sorts of dishes, and the lime juice balanced the ginger’s bite.
Krishna rarely peels ginger, which comes in two forms—young and mature. The younger version has a very thin skin that most people don’t peel, but she doesn’t peel that knobby version you commonly see, either. “I’m a pretty strong proponent that you don’t need to peel ginger,” she says, probably because she’s accustomed to using it “literally in everything” Indian she cooks. (If you do want to peel it, consider using the tip of a spoon, inverted, so you don’t get lose its delicate flesh, too: A vegetable peeler can work, but tends to take a lot of the good stuff with it.)
Ginger is “an amazing component in salad dressings,” says Krishna. In her home, fresh ginger, raw garlic and lime would mingle with salt, herbs, fresh green chiles and sometimes a bit of sugar (sort of like a Vietnamese sauce). She’d use it to dress cucumbers, tomatoes, or onions, and says “it tastes like that delicious juice that pools at the bottom of ceviche.”
Where else does it make cameos in Indian cuisine? Aloo gobi, marinades, chickpea stew, chole, matar paneer, dal makhani, and on and on, says Krishna. If you’re on the fence about using it, consider whether what you’re cooking is salty, rich, or spice-heavy. As she points out, ginger “will cut through all that.” As is true of lime and chiles in Indian cuisine, use it whenever a dish “needs a brightening component or bite.”
How to start using more of it? Just always keep it on hand.
Alex Van Buren—follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen—is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and content strategist who has written for The Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Epicurious.