Awakening to the sounds of crows perched on a tree outside my window, I see the early morning light and realize that my day is about to begin. As I look out on the placid harbor waters of Cochin, India, I see a large steamship carrying many containers, some of which I am sure are spices heading to distant ports. I can't help but think of the thousands of years of spice history that abound here along the Malabar Coastline. This area produces the same spices today as in ancient times -– notably black pepper, turmeric, and the spice that brings me here today, ginger. My name is Al Goetze, chief spice buyer for McCormick & Company, Inc., and in this instalment of the Spice Buyer's Journal, I'm giving you a firsthand look at the latest Indian Ginger crop. Indian, along with Chinese ginger, are considered the finest in the world.
My local business contact, Ravi, meets me in my hotel lobby to make the long and somewhat nerve-wracking drive to one of the key ginger growing districts in the Ghat Mountains. Chatting with Ravi along the way, I get the latest news on the crop from the farmer's perspective, including the situation on the domestic and international demand, and general outlook for the future. In anutshell, the crop is good this year, and demand from all markets is very strong.
Ginger is a tropical spice that has a wonderful pungent, citrus flavor. It is an important ingredient in a variety of international cuisines, and is being used for much more than just holiday baking. In fact, U.S. consumption of ginger has increased 256 percent during the past 20 years!
From my car window, I see an endless stream of small farm fields growing all kinds of tropical plants, such as coconut trees, tapioca, rice, cashew trees, turmeric, and intermittently, patches of ginger. As we climb in elevation, the roads become a virtual obstacle course, with hairpin turns, no guardrails, herds of goats and cattle, overweight trucks, buses, people, and other obstacles. Trying not to think about all of the pandemonium outside, I look forward to seeing the ginger fields. Finally, we arrive in the more concentrated growing areas and stop at a large hill farm currently under harvest.
Ginger is the rhizome, or undergrou nd stem, of a small plant that grows two to four feet in height. It is a beautiful, green decorative plant with a grouping of long leafstalks. An annual crop, ginger is grown from rootstock carried over from the previous year. The stock is planted at the end of the dry season, just prior to the monsoon rains. Plants take about seven to nine months to reach maturity. All ginger is harvested by hand. When the leaves of the plant die, the thick roots -– about six inches long -– are unearthed, washed, partially skinned to arrest growth, and sun dried.
Like most farmers, the people tending the crops are friendly and very proud. They enjoy explaining every step of the ginger harvest and preparation process, and invite me into their tent for a brief respite from the hot sun. There, we sip freshly brewed tea, steeped with a few slices of ginger harvested this morning, and eat biscuits. It is simultaneously refreshing and soothing. One of the farm hands states, with a big grin, that India has the best ginger in the world. Without question, it is certainly one of my favourites.
Back in Cochin late in the day, we arrive at Ravi's warehouse, and are greeted in the courtyard by a Hindu Priest atop his temple elephant. The priest visits annually to bless Ravi's operation and to thank the Hindu Gods for another bountiful crop of ginger. Some of my favorite summer recipes feature ginger. Two of them are Grilled Ginger Peach Melba and Two Potato Salad with Toasted Pecans.