With ginger appearing in all types of food, from savory to sweet, Asian to American, there’s never been a better time to learn how to pair it with wine.

Spicy, sassy and just slightly sweet, ginger is the flavor of the month. Yes, ginger—the stuff your grandma baked with every Christmas, when she shipped you those big boxes of cookies.

A few decades ago, ginger in America was largely found in powdered form or in crystallized chunks, and was relegated to the cupboard only to emerge in December for the annual baking of gingerbread houses and men. In recent years, ginger has been available in its natural form—a gnarly, brown, clawlike thing—in the produce section of the supermarket, purchased, a few knobs at a time, on those nights when you want to make a real honest-to-goodness stir-fry.

Of late, though, ginger has hit the big time.

“It’s become mainstream,” says Malaysian-born Susheela Raghavan, a food technologist whose specialty is spices. She is author of The Handbook of Spices, Seasoning and Flavors (CRC Press, 2000), as well as manufacturer of a new line of spice blends called Taste of Malacca. “Now it’s in everything.”

Ginger candy—even ginger gummy bears for the little ones—is turning up in stores, as are ginger-based teas. Trader Joe’s, the supermarket chain, has recently introduced a line of ginger-sesame potato chips. You can buy pickled ginger, ginger purée and ginger in syrup; it also appears as an ingredient in all kinds of prepared sauces and marinades. Restaurant chefs are increasingly turning to ginger when they want to add a more complex heat to all kinds of dishes. “Ginger’s making its way into more Americanized restaurants,” says Charles Simeone, director of education for Southern Wine and Spirits of New York, a subsidiary of the mega-distributor, Southern Wine and Spirits of America.

“My chefs use ginger in a lot of different areas,” agrees Brett Reichler, corporate chef and partner in B.R. Guest Inc., a 14-restaurant organization that offers cuisines ranging from Asian to Mexican to contem- porary American. Not surprisingly, ginger is used at Ruby Foo’s, B.R. Guest’s pan-Asian restaurant in New York. But they also use it at Dos Caminos, a Mexican dining spot in Manhattan. There, he says, “They use ginger and chilies in salads. And they’re using ginger in ceviche—that spicy, aromatic quality gives it a nice wallop.”

Indeed, the very qualities that make ginger so appealing can make pairing it with wine a bit of a challenge. “The amount of heat that the ginger brings to the dish is what you have to balance,” says Simeone. After that, it’s like any wine pairing: You consider the protein component, the preparation techniques and the other seasonings. Ginger will pair well with a surprising variety of wines, he says, “depending on the level of heat” in the dish.

Ginger’s heat and pungency comes from a set of naturally occurring nonvolatile compounds called gingerols, explains Raghavan. Most spices and seasonings contain both volatile and nonvolatile compounds; the volatiles typically supply a spice’s fragrance and are apt to dissipate when cooked or exposed to air (hence their name). The nonvolatiles are the source of a spice’s distinctive flavor—in the case of ginger, a complex mix of sweetness, heat and pungency. (Ginger’s volatile compound is called zingiberene.)

Ginger isn’t just another pretty flavor. It has been used as a medicinal spice for thousands of years. It’s a yang, or hot, food (read warming and invigorating) in the food division of China’s yin-yang philosophy of balance. And it is mentioned in the Ayurvedic texts of India’s traditional healers. When she wasn’t baking, your grandma may have prescribed ginger ale for a tummy ache; it’s long been considered a remedy for indigestion and motion sickness. The health food set also touts ginger as a protective against colds, flu, arthritis, circulatory problems and certain cancers, and lately, medical researchers have been conducting studies of its efficacy in several of these areas.

Though ginger is enjoying a surge in popularity, many are still unfamiliar with what is commonly known as ginger root. While it has all the physical appearance of something that grows underground—its cloaked in dirt and deprived of light—ginger isn’t a root at all, but a rhizome, a plant that grows sideways with roots of its own.

Nor is ginger always brown and shriveled. When harvested at an early stage of development, young ginger, as it is called, is smooth and shiny, and has an off-white color with a pinkish blush. Young ginger is still a rarity in the U.S., but in Asia, where ginger is thought to have originated a few thousand years ago, and in nearby Australia, where it has become a cash crop, young ginger is commonplace.

Young ginger is more delicate than mature ginger, says Astor Chin-Lyn, general manager of Buderim Ginger, America, Inc., the Saddle River, New Jersey-based U.S. division of a 60-plus-year-old Australian ginger grower. “If you harvest it young, it’s tenderer and milder,” Chin-Lyn says. “If you let it stay longer in the ground, the bigger it gets, the more the flavor concentrates.”

Besides Australia, ginger is grown in Hawaii, Jamaica, Nigeria and other parts of Africa, India and Southeast Asia. The world’s chief producer of ginger is China. Ginger grows best in tropical climates, where the weather is hot and moist. Raghavan notes that the ginger crops from various parts of the world have different flavor characteristics, much like wine. “Ginger varies based on soil conditions and climate,” she says. “Indian ginger is very aromatic and pungent. Jamaican ginger is more delicate. The African ginger I find harsher, with a weak aroma. But it’s a matter of taste.”

It’s also almost moot, as most ginger imported to the U.S. is from China, and little is labeled as to its origin or producer. (Buderim Ginger, which produces and sells only packaged ginger products, is an exception. The company, which opened its U.S. division just six years ago, proudly touts both its Australian provenance and its brand name.)

Chin-Lyn thinks it’s only a matter of time before this changes, and young ginger, ginger labeled by place of origin and all sorts of ginger products will appear on the market.

Reichler agrees, though in the meantime, he and his chefs are using the ginger that is on the market in every conceivable fashion.

“The most fragrant and wonderful way to eat ginger is to stir-fry or sauté it. It takes out the harshness of the raw stuff and brings out the wonderful fragrant sweetness,” he says. But his kitchens also purée and juice the raw ginger. And they take thinly sliced pickled ginger, fry it in oil and use the resulting “ginger chips” in salads or as a garnish. Ginger turns up in his Ginger-Jalapeño Dressing for a Big Eye Tuna Salad, and in the Coconut-Ginger Rice that accompanies an Avocado Leaf-Crusted Tuna. It also works in desserts, often in crystallized or candied form; at Ruby Foo’s, Reichler notes, the dessert menu features a Thai coffee sundae with candied ginger ice cream. B.R. Guest menus have also offered a ginger float and ginger fortune cookies.

“Ginger marries well with a lot of different ingredients,” says Reichler. “Beef, chicken, shrimp, lobster. Those items on their own need something to bring out their natural sweetness and flavor.” Ginger serves as the tangy, hot, almost acidic contrast to rich proteins. It also pairs well with other strong seasonings, he adds. “Soy, ginger and garlic seem to be a natural marriage,” he says. And chili peppers, though hot on their own, like the complex, spicy heat that ginger brings.

So which wine to serve with a ginger-accented meal? As a general rule, Simeone likes to pair Riesling with ginger. With its oftentimes healthy dose of residual sugar and its lively personality, it makes an excellent match for the spicy, slightly sweet heat of the ginger. He recommends the estate-bottled Resling of  August Kessler (Rheingau), and those from Richter Estate (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer), Pierre Sparr (Alsace), and Villa Maria (Marlborough). The latter he says, is dry and has a nice fruit character that complements the ginger.

Other whites that would work include Pinot Gris and Portuguese vinho verde. New World Viogniers that are well balanced, with good soil-fruit integration (nothing too fruity or alcoholic) such as Geyser Peak’s 2004 Block Collection Preston Vineyard Viognier from Dry Creek Valley are also good bets. For dishes that aren’t fiery hot, brut Champagne will work well. If the heat is turned up, demi-sec is the way to go.

For ginger-accented dishes made with heavier protein, Simeone likes Pinot Noir, particularly Vincent Girardin’s Pommard and Gevery-Chambertin. For a New World Pinot, try Bernardus, from Monterey, California. Overall, Pinot Noir, Simeone says, “has an intrinsic soy quality” that marries well with Asian-style dishes and rich seafood such as tuna, salmon and crab.

Ginger-laced desserts, with their higher sugar content, get special treatment. Simeone still opts for Riesling, but selects sweeter, late-harvest or ice wines. Mission Hill 2003 Reserve Riesling Icewine, from the Canadian Okanagan Valley VQA, is a good match. Alternatives are Moscato d’Asti, Laurent-Perrier’s nonvintage demi-sec Champagne, and Domaine Disznókó’s 6 Puttonyos Tokaji Aszú.
For ginger these days, “there’s a lot of crossover appeal,” says Simeone; it shows in the array of wines that you can pair with it. But that’s ginger. Whether in the ethnic kitchen, the bakery or as an energizer for tired menu standbys, it’s the culinary world’s new-old utility player.

Ginger-Soy Lacquered Chilean Sea Bass with Chinese Broccoli, Sticky Rice and Wasabi-Ginger Vinaigrette
This ginger-accented sea bass has been a standby on the menu at B.R. Guest’s Blue Water Grill since its debut some nine years ago. Corporate Chef Brett Reichler notes that several of the ingredients called for here—mirin (sweet Japanese rice wine), wasabi (horseradish) and sticky sushi rice—can be found in Japanese or pan-Asian markets, or in the Asian section of better supermarkets.
For the sea bass and marinade:
1 cup low-sodium soy sauce
1/2 cup unseasoned rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
4 tablespoons granulated sugar
4 (7-ounce) fillets Chilean sea bass
3 tablespoons vegetable oil for sautéing

For the rice:
1 cup water
1 cup sushi rice
1/4 cup unseasoned rice wine vinegar
For the broccoli:
1 head broccoli (preferably chinese)

For the Wasabi-Ginger Vinaigrette:
2 tablespoons wasabi powder
4 to 6 tablespoons hot water
1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
1/4 cup mirin
1/4 cup unseasoned rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger
1/4 cup light soy sauce
1-1/2 cups pure olive oil or vegetable oil
1/2 cup sesame oil

To prepare the marinade: Pour the soy sauce and vinegar into a stainless steel bowl and add the ginger, garlic and sugar. Mix well, until the sugar is dissolved.
Place the pieces of sea bass into a shallow stainless steel or glass baking dish in a single layer and pour the marinade over them. Turn to coat. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.
For the rice: Pour the water into a medium saucepan, and add the rice and rice wine vinegar. Cover and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes, or until rice is tender. Remove from the heat, fluff with a fork and keep warm until ready to serve.
To prepare the broccoli: Bring water to a boil in the bottom of a steamer set over high heat. Make sure the bottom of the steamer contains only enough water so that the top section of the steamer does not have water in it. Place the broccoli into the top section of the steamer, set it on top of the boiling bottom section, cover and steam for about 6 minutes, or until tender. Remove from the heat and keep warm until ready to serve.
For the vinaigrette: Mix the wasabi powder and hot water in a mixing bowl until the mixture takes on the consistency of a smooth paste. Add the hoisin, mirin, rice wine vinegar, ginger and soy sauce. Slowly add the oil to the vinaigrette, whisking constantly with a wire whisk as you add it. Whisk until the ingredients are smooth and emulsified.
To sauté the bass: Heat the vegetable oil in a sauté pan over medium-high heat until the oil ripples. Carefully place the sea bass into the pan in a single layer, working in batches if necessary. Reserve the marinade. Sauté the bass, shaking the pan gently, for 3 to 4 minutes, or until golden; then turn carefully with a spatula and sauté the other side for 3 to 4 minutes. Add about 2 tablespoons of the reserved marinade to the sauté pan and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the liquid thickens and becomes syrupy and coats the fish. Discard the remaining marinade.
To assemble the dish: Spoon equal portions of rice onto 4 serving plates, and place equal portions of broccoli on each. Place one fillet of sea bass on each plate, angling so that it overlaps the rice slightly. Drizzle about 2 ounces of vinaigrette on to the outside of each plate. Serves 4.
Wine recommendation: Villa Maria’s 2002 Cellar Selection Riesling from Marlborough, New Zealand.

Poached Maine Lobster, Black Peppercorn Pasta, Moscato d’Asti and Candied Ginger Beurre Blanc
Reichler serves this succulent lobster dish as a special at Blue Water Grill, Ocean Grill and Atlantic Grill. The candied ginger gives a new dimension to a classic beurre blanc sauce. Reichler uses young ginger, but if you can’t find it, use regular ginger, peeled and julienned. The chef suggests drinking the same wine that’s used in the dish: a Moscato d’Asti.
For the pasta:
1 pound black peppercorn or other flavored spaghetti, linguine or fettuccine
For the Candied Ginger Beurre Blanc:
4 sticks (1 pound) unsalted butter, cubed, plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 medium shallots, peeled and sliced
About 1/4 cup (2 ounces fresh ginger, peeled, and sliced)
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
1 tablespoon Old Bay Seasoning
Zest of 1 lemon
4 cups Moscato d’Asti
1-1/2 cups water
1/4 cup granulated sugar
6 ounces fresh young (immature) ginger, or peeled fresh ginger, julienned
For the poached lobsters:
2 gallons water
6 bay leaves
4 tablespoons salt
1/2 pound carrots, coarsely chopped
1/2 pound onion, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
2 lemons, cut in half
4 (1-pound) Maine lobsters
Prepare the pasta according to the package directions. Remove from the heat and keep warm.
To prepare the sauce: Heat 2 tablespoons butter in a small saucepan set over medium heat, being careful not to let it brown. Add the shallots, 1/4 cup sliced ginger and peppercorns and sauté, stirring and shaking the pan, for 2 to 3 minutes or until the shallots are translucent. Add the Old Bay Seasoning, lemon zest and Moscato d’Asti, and stir to combine. Cook until the mixture is thickened and reduced in volume to about 1 cup. Add the remaining 4 sticks butter and whisk the mixture with a wire whisk until the butter is melted and the mixture takes on a creamy consistency. Be careful not to let the mixture get too hot, or it will separate. When all the butter is melted and incorporated into the sauce, remove it from the heat and keep warm.
To candy the young ginger: Pour the water into a separate saucepan, add the sugar and bring to a boil. Add the young ginger and cook, stirring occasionally, for 4 to 6 minutes or until the sugar and water thicken and form a light golden, syrupy caramel sauce that clings to the ginger. Do not let the syrup brown, or it will be bitter. Work carefully, as the hot sugar can cause painful burns. Add the candied ginger to the beurre blanc and mix gently until incorporated. Remove from the heat and keep warm.
To prepare the lobster: Pour the 2 gallons of water into a pot large enough to hold the 4 lobsters. Add the bay leaves, salt, carrot, onion, black peppercorns and lemon halves. Bring to a boil. Carefully plunge the lobsters into the pot. Just before the water begins to boil again, reduce the heat and simmer for 6 to 8 minutes, or until the lobsters are brilliant red-orange in color and cooked through. When the lobsters are cooked, remove them from the pot with tongs, place them on a work surface and using a sharp 8- 10-inch chef’s knife, split them in half lengthwise. Remove the stomachs and clean out the body cavities, leaving the lobster meat in the tail and claw. Place 1 split lobster on each serving plate. Fill each cavity with equal portions of pasta. Spoon a generous portion of beurre blanc over the pasta. Serve any remaining beurre blanc on the side as a dipping sauce for the lobster. Serves 4.
Wine recommendation: Marcarini’s 2004 Moscato d’Asti from Piedmont.

Published on October 1, 2005