Sweet and sour ginger chicken. Photo / Manja Wachsmuth
Recently, someone asked me what they could use as a substitute for ginger. Often you can make spice or herb swaps, which, while not delivering the exact note of flavor, can offer a satisfactory match
flavor profile and intensity. You can, for example, easily swap oregano for marjoram, and thyme for rosemary. If you don’t have Moroccan spice, use cumin and add a little cayenne pepper or chilli – or vice versa. No chipotle powder? Use the same amount of smoked paprika plus a little chilli or cayenne pepper. Swapping turmeric for saffron will give you the same rich, golden color and, as the flavor of both spices is quite subtle, as long as you don’t use too much the flavor difference isn’t too pronounced.
Fresh ginger, however, is a harder ask. I’ve never managed to figure out what could be used in its place. As a dry spice, where it is predominately used in baking, ginger is sweetly spicy, but in the fresh form, this useful rhizome brings in a particular aromatic tone, pungent, lively and bright. I find it almost addictive. The tropical growing conditions required for the ginger plant mean that you will always find it in the cooking of Asia, India and the Caribbean. The dried spice also turns up in North African savory dishes and spice mixes.
New-season ginger is soft-skinned, juicy and surprisingly perishable. As it ages, it becomes denser, stronger (thus hotter) and more fibrous. Fresh ginger juice (best made with soft-skinned new-season ginger) is obtained by grating or pureeing fresh ginger, squeezing out the liquid and discarding the pulp. It’s a bit of a fiddle to make, but you end up with a clean, pungent taste and none of the fibrous pith. Adding ginger juice to pork mince with salt, pepper and a little spring onion or coriander transforms a simple dumpling filling.
Mixing ginger juice with soy sauce and a little vinegar creates a sensational dipping sauce. Mix ginger juice with sugar and some sake or mirin for a fabulous teriyaki sauce or mix with miso and a little honey for a wonderful marinade/topping for baked fish or chicken. I always like to add ginger juice into a hot toddy when I feel a tickle in my throat, along with honey, lemon juice, a pinch of cayenne pepper and hot water.
American food writer David Tanis has a wonderful recipe for pickled ginger, which is also best made with soft-skinned fresh ginger. It’s a simple thing to make and useful to have on hand in the fridge, where it will keep for months. I’ve scaled up the brine from the original recipe so that it will easily cover the sliced ginger. Peel 250g fresh soft-skinned ginger and slice very thinly with a potato peeler. In a clean jar mix 2½ Tbsp caster sugar and 2 tsp salt with ½ cup rice vinegar, stirring or shaking until dissolved. Add the sliced ginger and if you want a pretty pink color add 3 thin slices of raw beetroot. Press down so that the ginger and beetroot are submerged in the vinegar mixture, cover and store in the fridge. It keeps for months.
The clean, vibrant, pick-me-up bite of fresh ginger offers the perfect segue out of winter. Here are three simple recipes to enjoy it.
Sweet and sour ginger chicken
I like using bone-in chicken thigh quarters for this recipe as the meat is more flavoursome and it stays wonderfully succulent when baked.
Ready in 50 minutes
4 chicken marylands (thigh quarters)
Salt and ground black pepper
2 Tbsp neutral oil
3 Tbsp sugar
3 Tbsp white vinegar
½ cup white wine
1 cup chicken stock
1 Tbsp fish sauce
½ long red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped, or more to taste
2 fat cloves garlic, chopped
¼ cup coarsely grated or pureed fresh ginger
TO GARNISH (optional)
Small handful mint, basil or Vietnamese mint leaves
Neutral oil, for frying
Cooked rice and lightly cooked greens
Preheat oven to 200C. Season chicken with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large cast-iron baking dish and brown chicken all over, working in batches if necessary so as not to overcrowd the pan. Remove chicken and set aside.
Drain oil from the pan, add sugar and vinegar and cook over high heat until mixture starts to caramelise. Add wine, stock, fish sauce, chilli and garlic. Pick up the grated ginger in your hand and squeeze the juice from it into the pan, discarding the solids. Squeeze out as much juice as you can.
Bring sauce to a boil then return chicken to dish and spoon over the liquids.
Bake uncovered, basting several times with the cooking liquids, until chicken is golden and fully cooked (about 35-40 minutes).
While chicken is baking, prepare the fried herb garnish, if using. Heat 2cm oil in a small pot until it shimmers and fry mint, basil or Vietnamese mint leaves until they just change color (about 5-10 seconds). Lift out with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
Serve chicken with cooking liquids spooned over the top, accompanied with rice and lightly cooked greens. Garnish with fried herbs, if using.
Chilli ginger brussels sprouts
It’s always handy to have a repertoire of interesting side dishes up your sleeve, like these delicious, Asian-inspired brussels sprouts.
Ready in 10 minutes
500g brussels sprouts
2 Tbsp neutral oil
1 tsp sesame oil
1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped, or ½ tsp chilli flakes
2 tsp sugar
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 Tbsp coarsely grated ginger
2 Tbsp rice vinegar
1 Tbsp fish sauce
Trim and halve brussels sprouts, drop into a pot of boiling water and simmer 2 minutes.
Drain, cool under cold water and drain again. Heat the neutral oil and sesame oil in a frying pan and fry chillies for a few seconds. Add brussels sprouts and sugar and stir-fry over high heat until starting to caramelise (about 5 minutes).
Stir in garlic and ginger, then rice vinegar and fish sauce. Serve hot.
Roasted pears in pink ginger syrup
Roasting the pears after they have been poached adds an extra depth of flavor and gives them a dense, rich texture. I use thin slices of beetroot to deliver the pink color. If preferred you can replace with 500g frozen raspberries.
Ready in about 1 hour
1½ cups sugar
4 cups of water
1 red beetroot, peeled and thinly sliced, or 500g frozen raspberries
30 very thin slices peeled fresh ginger (use a vegetable peeler)
1 cinnamon quill
6-8 just-ripe pears, peeled with stems intact
Find a pot that will fit the pears snugly in a single layer standing upright. To make the syrup, heat sugar, water, beetroot or raspberries, ginger and cinnamon quill, stirring until sugar has dissolved.
Add pears, arranging so they are all submerged as much as possible in the syrup. Cook gently for about 25-30 minutes, turning often.
Remove beetroot or if using raspberries, strain the syrup to discard raspberry pulp, then return the slices of ginger back to the syrup. Pears can be prepared to this point, covered and kept in the fridge for up to 2 days in the syrup (it actually improves them).
To serve, pre-heat oven to 180C, lift pears out of syrup and arrange in a shallow baking dish. Bake for 20 minutes.
On top of the stove, boil poaching liquid hard until it reduces by half and gets thick and syrupy. Serve each pear with a spoonful of syrup and some slices of the ginger.
Match these with …
Ginger Sweet and Sour Chicken
Riverby Cicada Marlborough Gewurztraminer 2020 ($19.99)
It’d be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. Every spring, I turn up on the Riverby estate doorstep, clutching my begging glass and a sign saying, “Please tell me you have a new Cicada gewürztraminer. I won’t leave until I can taste it.” This year, I had to wait. And wait. I set up camp. The council served me a “nuisance notice”. Twas worth it just to taste the turkish delight, lashings of lychee, and sackloads of spice in this new vintage. Sweet and sour chicken? Happy Sipping!
Chilli ginger brussels sprouts
Rimu Grove Bronte Nelson Pinot Gris 2019 ($24.29)
With all its lifted nashi notes on the nose and bright, electrically spicy apple strudel flavours, this bottle of Nelsonian niceness is like a party on your palate. While my favorite part of any shindig is when I sneak out without saying bye to anyone in order to go home and sleep, this party has WAY more energy and stamina. The acidity is fresh and frisky, and the texture is gorgeously grainy and creates rock ‘n’ roll length of flavor with these hot little brassicas.
Pears in pink ginger syrup
Rapaura Springs Gravel Lane Botrytised Marlborough Riesling 2018 375ml ($40)
You know this recipe is calling you right? It’s your gingery destiny. So kick off your shoes, loosen your straps, undo your buttons and embrace the candied mandarin, toffee apple and crystalized ginger goodness of this gum-numbingly gorgeous dessert in a bottle. Intensely sweet and superbly sticky, yet showing racy, zesty acidity, lime-laden loveliness, it’s absolute perfection with this pear-packed pudding. While incredibly complex, perfectly balanced and beyond excellent with this syrupy sensation, be warned, if you’ve not been to the dentist recently, chances are your cavities will be screaming by now.
— Yvonne Lorkin