Skip the usual eggnog and try a sip of Puerto Rican-inspired coquito to stay toasty — and healthy — during the festive season. Freshly grated ginger is the key ingredient in this version of the holiday beverage based on spiced rum and coconut milk. It’ll get the tropics pulsing through your veins — even if you’re just taking a “staycation” in a frosty region. Best of all, you’ll get the healing benefits of ginger to counter the season’s excess.
Ginger is part of the Zingeberaceae family, which also includes cardamom, galangal and turmeric. The Latin term Zingiber is derived from the South Indian Tamil root ingiver, according to P. N. Ravindran and K.N. Babu in “Ginger: The Genus Zingiber.” The term then spread to Greece and Rome via Arab traders, who called it az-zanjabil. For a more detailed etymological explanation, refer to Gernot Katzer’s ginger page.
Zingiber officinale is the species that includes common ginger. Wild crop relatives of Zingiber reportedly exist in parts of India; the rhizome probably has its origins in Southeast or South Asia, which have the greatest diversity of ginger crops. In India, for example, there are more than 400 ginger cultivars. Each variety has a different taste and texture, based on the soil, climate, cultivation, age at harvest and processing practices. Global ginger production in 2008 was more than 1.4 million metric tons, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. India, China, Indonesia, Nepal and Nigeria are the world’s top ginger producers, but it is cultivated in almost every tropical and subtropical region of the world.
Modern-day South Asia, Southeast Asia, and China have used ginger as a food-medicine for millennia, and through migration of both people and plants, it has been adopted as an ingredient around the world. These days, you can find ginger in Christmas cookies, trendy cocktails, meat marinades and tea drinks. My favorite is a warming ginger-laden tadka, or spiced oil blend, to season a winter dhal (cooked lentils).
Historically ginger has been recommended to treat stomach aches, diarrhea, nausea, asthma, respiratory disorders, toothache, gingivitis and arthritis in ancient India, China, Rome and Greece, according to R. Grzanna et al. in the Journal of Medicinal Foods. Ginger is included in many formulations in Ayurveda, Siddha, Unani and Chinese medicine.
Fresh and dried forms of ginger, adhrak and sunthi, are viewed differently within the Ayurvedic discipline, notes K.T. Achaya in “A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food.” While dried ginger is categorized as pungent, fresh is both sweet and pungent. So a vaidya (skilled Ayurvedic practitioner) would use a specific form of ginger to correct an imbalance. Like turmeric, fresh ginger is boiled in milk, sweetened and used as a household remedy to treat colds and chills. In South India, in particular, a piece of fresh ginger with salt is served at the start of the meal to stimulate digestion. Ginger is known to help assimilate difficult-to-digest legumes.
In traditional Chinese medicine, ginger is employed when the body is not coping well with “moist” elements. Similar to its Ayurvedic uses, ginger is prescribed for rheumatism and winter chills, colds, coughs, flu, bronchial congestion, and even hangovers. (Ginger tea is a great remedy for too much celebration.) With cleansing and purifying properties, ginger improves circulation throughout the tissues. Coastal Chinese often serve ginger with crab, since it is thought to both prevent and cure shellfish poisoning.
Steven Foster, a noted botanist and author, has remarked that in the West, ginger beer and ale were manufactured widely to improve circulation, treat upset stomach and ease motion sickness. And if you want to improve dough’s rising capacity, certain spices enhance yeast’s activity when baking and this includes small amounts of ginger, ground caraway, cardamom, cinnamon, mace, nutmeg and thyme according to Shirley Corriher in “CookWise.”
When a plant is used for similar purposes in diverse healing traditions, it is likely that modern studies will support its efficacy. This seems to be the case with ginger. Contemporary human studies have found that ginger counters nausea and vertigo, and affects human platelet function.
More than 400 chemicals have been identified in ginger, but only a few have been evaluated for their pharmacological properties. The most studied ginger-derived plant chemicals are gingerols, shogaols, and paradols, which make ginger pungent. These chemicals have been found to prevent blood clotting.
According to Germany’s equivalent of the U.S. Food and Drug Administraiton, ginger is officially recognized as an anti-emetic in the German Pharmacopoeia and used as a component of anti-nausea medicines; in the United States, in keeping with The United States Pharmacopeia, ginger is used alone and as a main component of digestive, anti-nausea, and cold and flu dietary supplements.
Botanically, ginger is a rhizome — a stem that grows underground — not a root. Young ginger, harvested at 5 to 6 months, yields tender rhizomes with less fiber and significantly less pungent chemicals. These are used to make candies or stir-fried as a vegetable, in Southeast Asia. The second harvest, at 6 to 8 months, when plants are about 85 percent of their maximum size, produces rhizomes with the highest proportion of essential volatile oils. These are best for the preparation of dehydrated products. The ginger that one buys at the supermarket is typically harvested at 8 to 12 months. Finally, at 12 months, the fully mature rhizomes are dried and ground, unpeeled to preserve the essential oils, into powdered ginger.
Sarah‘s version of Puerto Rican-inspired Coquitos
Many fine coquito recipes include egg yolks, sweet condensed milk, evaporated milk, cream of coconut and coconut milk. In this recipe, I stripped away the multiple types of milk, ratcheted up the spices and included a large dose of fresh, warming ginger. During the cold winter months, go ahead and soak your inside with time-tested medicinal extracts to heat and heal body and soul.
- Pour rum into the glass bottle. Place all spices into glass bottle and let sit for 1 to 2 days.
- Line a simple sieve with cheese cloth. Pour the rum spice mixture through the sieve. Discard the spices and clean the bottle.
- Pour spice-infused rum back into the bottle. Add sweetener. Add 12 ounces coconut milk. Cap, shake, serve, sip.
Sarah Khan, an assistant scientist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, founded the nonprofit Tasting Cultures Foundation, which develops multimedia educational programming about the intersection of food and culture.
Photo: Ginger, cloves, cinnamon and vanilla for Puerto Rican coquito.
Credit: Sarah Khan