Culinary rhizomes: Ginger and turmeric

We’re all familiar with ginger root (from the grocery store or dried whole or powdered) and turmeric (commonly found in curry powder–the bright yellow-orange stuff), and galangal in Southeast Asian cooking, but you can add those to the things you can grow in your kitchen garden–even if it is a container garden.

The ginger family of plants (Zingiberaceae) provides us with a number of “spices” that we use frequently:  ginger (Zingiber officinale), turmeric(Curcuma longa), and galangal (Alpinia officinarum or “lesser galangal), and cardamom seeds (genera Elettaria–green cardamom-and Amomum–black cardamom).

Ginger, turmeric, and galangal are perennial herbaceous plants with specialized horizontal stems (rhizomes) that lie underground, but close to the surface.  While we are most likely to encounter these in the dried form or find the ginger rhizomes in the produce section of the grocery store, you can add the fresh forms of some of these to your culinary repertoire.

All these plants mentioned above have similar requirements for growing: even moisture, well-drained soil, partial to dappled shade, warm temperatures, and high humidity, and protection from cold.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

You can start your ginger by getting the “root stock” (an official technical term here) from the grocery store.   You want rhizomes that are plump, and fresh looking, and that have knobs or nubs growing off the main part of the root.  It’s likely that the ginger root you find in the grocery store will have been treated with something to retard growth/sprouting, so rinse it thoroughly before you plant it.

Bury it about one inch deep in well-drained soil and keep evenly moist.  If you’re planting it in a pot, you should use one that is of 12- to14-inch diameter and about same in depth, but does not need the full depth of most 14 inch pots.

It may take a few weeks before you see shoots appear.  You’ll not want to harvest your ginger heavily the first season, but you can harvest some after about 4 months.  Ginger will not need (or like) full sun–it would prefer part (dappled) shade.  In areas where you get hard freezes, you’ll need to overwinter indoors.  In areas where the winter is mild, it may die back to the ground with the onset of cool weather but should come up again in the spring.  (I’m partial to growing it in large pots).  During the summer it can be put outdoors and moved to shelter to prevent freezing in winter.  It should be fertilized with an all-purpose fertilizer about twice during the growing season.

You harvest by very gently uncovering part of the rhizome, or where it’s seen above the surface towards the edge of the pot–leaving the center portion undisturbed.

The ginger you harvest from your plant will be much less fibrous and less “hot” when compared to the large rhizomes that you purchase in the grocery store.  The leaves/stalks can also be used to brew tea (steep leaves in boiling water for 5 minutes) and you can add to stir-fries or other dishes if you slice the stalks/leaves thinly–it has a mild ginger flavor and maybe a hint of lemon or citrus.

Turmeric ( Curcuma domestica syn Curcuma longa)

Turmeric is touted as an anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant–I’m not touching on those properties here, but rather the culinary uses.  It has been called “poor man’s saffron” and that’s one of my favorite things: add fresh turmeric to rice.  It’s very earthy and warm.  It’s not saffron, but it’s good.

To grow your own, you’ll need the fresh rhizomes–found in Asian, Indian or Latina groceries–probably located close to the ginger, (and maybe the galangal).  You’ll treat it almost as you would ginger:  plant about one to two inches deep in a 12- to 14-inch pot (about 12 inches in depth as well), keep evenly moist but well-drained, and give it part shade to dappled shade.  This is also a tropical perennial so it will need winter protection.  In cool weather, the leaves will die back, but if not frozen the rhizomes should sprout again in the spring.  (I tried keeping some, with the ginger, in the house to overwinter, but neither turmeric nor ginger survived as a plant; the rhizomes did put up shoots again in the spring.)

You can harvest as you would ginger–by carefully cutting off small pieces toward the edges of the pot.  You need to handle with care as it will stain hands and probably counters–it’s used as a dye, too.   Left undisturbed (except for harvesting from the edges) you may see blooms in the second year.

Turmeric is currently appearing in chocolate bars, and being touted as a “superfood”. I just like the earthy flavor, in many things where I would use saffron (but am too cheap to do that).

I hope to add galangal if I can find the fresh rhizome–there is an Asian food store that I keep watching. I suspect I’ll find it there sooner or later.



Fresh rhizomes!

pomegranate tree, culinary ginger, and tumeric in large containers on deck

I’ve had a lovely display of tropical green plants this summer–and the fun (and flavors) of harvesting my own rhizomes from the “garden” on my front deck.  These two plants are worth having for the appearance, as well as the flavors from the leaves, stems, and rhizomes of both these plants.

As autumn progresses towards winter, these both will likely die back, but I can anticipate their reappearance in the spring. I doubt that I have enough light indoors (even with basic grow lights) to keep these plants alive, healthy, and flavorful, so I’ll just protect them from freezing, and wait as patiently as possible for spring! Neither of these seem difficult to grow here in NC: water, occasional fertilizer, and this is what I got to enjoy.

large plant of culinary ginger in pot

culinary ginger

The culinary ginger (Zingiber officinale) has been a pleasure all summer–the rhizome that is most often used in cooking is wonderful when it’s harvested young!  It is not fibrous, and may not even need to be peeled; the flavor is milder than the mature rhizome that we usually retrieve from the market, and can be use fresh to add some spice (but not burn) to salads of both fruit and greens.  Fortunately, the rhizome grows very near the surface so that it’s easy to harvest as needed and allow it to just keep right on growing.  If you have well-established ginger, the young, tender stems are also edible, as well as the rhizome–and since I’m a ginger lover, I sometimes add them to salad greens.

The plants in this picture are from established rhizomes that wintered over undisturbed–I was very restrained in harvesting it last year.  With protection from of the rhizomes from freezing,  it came back this spring.  It’s now on my list of “must have” herbs and spices. I’ll be moving this humongous pot indoors, but I’m afraid that I really can’t provide enough light to have it thrive during the winter indoors, so I’ll be anticipating the reappearance next spring.

Turmeric plant

The other addition this summer (also from second-year rhizomes) was turmeric (Curcuma longa) which I like to use fresh. (The rhizomes can sometimes be found fresh in Latino or Asian food stores.)  This is also a tropical plant so I’ll try it indoors, but I doubt that I can give it enough light either–so I’ll have to wait for spring for more rhizomes.  Turmeric is sometimes called “Indian saffron” because of its flavor and color–and I like to add it to rice just as I would saffron.  (Warning:  It will stain almost anything so handle with care.)  The fresh root can be used in pickles, and I’m sure with some searching I’ll find more ways to use it. The young rhizomes, like those of ginger, and tender and not fibrous like the older, mature rhizomes. Though it seems to grow deeper I harvested it like the ginger, and it did not seem to harm the plants.

As well as the uses for the rhizome, the leaves can be used to wrap food for cooking, and possibly included in other Asian recipes for flavor–I’m looking forward to trying this before these lovely large green leaves are gone for the winter–possibly with some chicken thighs on the grill.  I’ve even found references to use of turmeric leaves and roots in sweet dishes as well as savory ones. I’ve always kept turmeric powder on hand in the spice cabinet just as I do ginger root, but the fresh turmeric has now earned a place in my list of “usual” herbs and spices as well!  Many new flavors to explore.

A son goût!