by Alice DeLuca
A little prehistoric flower has been grown, re-created really, from 32,000 year-old seeds found in the ancient den of an artic ground squirrel. The photo of the little white flower in the New York Times [i] brought a rush of excitement and a feeling of kinship with the scientists who sought to cover those seeds with earth and add water, to cup their hands and breathe warm air over the planting, revealing the sprouts last seen by the tiny ground squirrel so long ago. I have the same feeling when reading an antique recipe that might bring back the flavors of the ancestors. Can we breathe life in to an antique delicacy and resurrect a better flavor? Why did people add rose geraniums to their jelly, infuse herring pie[ii] with grains de paradis[iii], or even stir and stir to create cornstarch pudding for that matter? Perhaps they knew a marvelous flavor-way or texture that has been lost to us, overtaken by food fads and conveniences of the present day?
As it happened, on the same day this flower blossom was reported, I was looking for a vivacious ginger syrup to drizzle on a vanilla panna cotta that was chilling in the fridge. I knew that ginger was a popular seasoning in Colonial America, and recalled seeing ginger syrup for sale in the store sometime in the last decade, but on this particular day I could not find a single bottled ginger syrup for sale. I wandered the aisles at the local yuppie-herbivore haunts, and poked around at the gourmet stores and cheese stores, but alas the açaí berry has supplanted so many other flavors, including ginger.
Giving up on buying prepared ginger syrup, I fled the grocery store for the comfort of home. Resolved to find a do-it-yourself recipe I dove in to the murky depths of the Internet, scuba-ing among the throngs of recipes that school together like sardines, each one exactly like the next. Disappointed again, I then recalled a volume wholly dedicated to the subject of ginger, picked up many years ago, that was among the cookbooks on my own bookshelf – perhaps there I would find an authentic recipe for ginger syrup, a once-popular sweet of ancient times.
The journey to find the recipe was complete when I came upon a sidebar, in Ginger – East to West [iv], noting in passing a 6th-century Chinese recipe for Honey Ginger. I read the recipe several times, my mind wandering to ancient China, struggling to part the frustrating veil of time that inevitably separates us from the true past.
- Honey Ginger in a Mason Jar
The 6th-century recipe called out to me because the sweetener was honey instead of sugar. Today’s internet-dwelling recipes for ginger syrup are highly uniform, some propagated by mixologists who make their own bitters in their free time or by herbal medicine fanatics inventing medicines without scientific backing. Just about all of these recipes call for boiling the ginger for half an hour or more with large amounts of refined sugar or corn syrup. This method would be less expensive than using honey, but the idea of dumping a mountain of sterile white granules on the slivered ginger held no magic.
In contrast, the simple ingredients of the ancient recipe – ginger, water and honey – could go either of two ways. I was skeptical about boiling honey. Sometimes, boiled honey develops a dank, musty flavor evoking the insect origin of the product. Also, the ancient directions to barely cook the ginger were the complete opposite of virtually all modern versions of ginger syrup – therefore, would the undercooked ginger be too tough and chewy? Would I ruin some otherwise delicious and costly honey in this quest? These doubts plagued my mind. The other possibility was that this would be a wonderful sweet to remember. As luck would have it, the ginger syrup made with honey is indeed the stuff of dreams.
Here is the recipe as provided in Ginger – East to West, translated by Professor Don Harper who is now at the University of Chicago and has, by his translations, breathed life in to hundreds of the very oldest Chinese recipes known to exist. Note the brilliant, practical technical instruction to cut the ginger to the same dimension as a known and common object – the chopstick.
“Wash clean one chin (224 grams or a little over 1/2 pound ) of fresh ginger. Peel away the skin. Cut it into sticks the thickness of lacquer chopsticks, without worrying about the length. Place these in two sheng (1 1/2 cups) of water and bring to a boil. Remove the scum. Add two sheng of honey, let it come to a boil again, and remove the scum.
Remove the ginger sticks to a bowl (leaving the syrup in the pot, which is to be cooked so it reduces by half). Pour the syrup over the ginger sticks and allow them to macerate.”[v]
Here’s how to make the lovely ginger syrup as translated by Don Harper:
- Ginger with Thai and Japanese chopsticks
Recipe5/8 pound fresh, plump ginger without any knotholes or unpleasant marks, peeled and sliced as described – with the dimensions of pieces of a chopstick 1 ½ cups well water (chlorinated water would be ruinous here) 1 ½ cups honey that has a flavor you enjoy – Boston Honey[vi] is delicious
- Boil the ginger sticks in the water for about 3 minutes, skimming foam. (There was not very much foam.)
- Add the honey and boil again, for 2 minutes, skimming foam.
- Remove the ginger to a clean heat-proof pint Mason jar and press it to the bottom with a fork. After pressing it down, the cooked ginger will fill half the jar.
- Boil the syrup remaining in the pot down by half. At this point, carefully pour the hot syrup over the ginger in the Mason jar. If there is too much syrup to fit in the jar, you need to boil it down some more. Keep reducing the syrup until there is just enough to fill the jar to the top.
- Enjoy the syrup soon after you make it as the one-two punching flavor of the initial preserve does indeed mellow with time, so that after a month the honey flavor predominates.
- Honey Ginger, served in an antique silver
and cut crystal dish designed to hold candy or nuts
The very-spicy syrup tastes great with custard, tapioca or other creamy desserts or by itself, and could be used in drink recipes, making it useful for people who enjoy artisanal cocktails. The barely cooked ginger sticks are pleasantly chewy. Nibble them; sip the syrup from a porcelain spoon, and you will at once be transported back in time, enjoying a long-dormant flavor brought back to life.
[i] Wade, Nicholas. “Dead for 32,000 Years, an Arctic Plant Is Revived.” Science. New York Times, 20 Feb. 2012. Web. 23 Mar. 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/21/science/new-life-from-an-arctic-flower-that-died-32000-years-ago.html?_r=3>.
[ii] Lacy, S. 2004. “Clupea harengus” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed March 23, 2012 at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Clupea_harengus.html
[iii] “Grains of Paradise.” 1911 Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Brittannica, 6 Oct. 2006. Web. 23 Mar. 2012. <http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/Grains_of_Paradise>.
Ginger East to West: A Cook’s Tour with Recipes, Techniques and Lore.
Berkeley, CA: Aris, 1984. 164. Print.
referencing the work of “Don Harper of the Department of Oriental Languages, University of California, Berkeley” and the sixth century A.D.
“Everyman’s Essential Arts.” Don Harper is now at the University of Chicago (2012).
Also used in the preparation of this article: Harper, Don. “The Cookbook and Gastronomy in Ancient China: The Evidence from Huxishan and Mawangdui.” Bulletin of the Hunan Provincial Museum (in Changsha) 1 (2004): 164-77. Print.
And Inspiration from The Grateful Dead. “Attics of My Life.” AMERICAN BEAUTY. [S. L.] : Warner Bros. Records. 1973.
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