West Africa’s Gnarly Ginger

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At first glance, West African ginger doesn’t look like much.

I once bought a kilo of ginger from my local market. The plastic bag was jam-packed with clumps of dirty ginger, flecks of earth clinging to its tiny gnarled toes and delicate root system.

The region’s ginger root is small compared to the larger Chinese variety, the type commonly found in Western grocery stores. But, West African ginger has an outsized flavor, making Chinese ginger seem bland in comparison.

Spicy and zesty, it almost burns the throat.

In West Africa, ginger is mainly used for making juice, which is popular throughout the region. Commonly found at maquis, it is a perfect digestif, its refreshing spiciness helping to process heavy meat sauces and white rice.

Ginger root is also used as a home remedy against common ailments. Ivoirians take dried ginger like a cough drop as it helps to numb a sore throat and clear nasal passages.

Given its widespread use in regional food and drink, ginger is one of the few agricultural commodities that are traded locally. While the vast majority of Côte d’Ivoire’s agricultural production – cocoa, coffee, cotton, and natural rubber – flows to the ports for export to international markets, ginger is bound in the other direction, flowing north to Mali, Burkina Faso, and Senegal.

Swirling sediment: ginger finds lucrative niche in specialty drinks market

While the majority of Western consumers are probably not familiar with the spicy and aromatic flavor of West African ginger, there is at least one major company introducing it to European and American palates.

Fever Tree, a UK-based drinks company, produces premium mixers for discerning drinkers. Tonic water is its best-selling product, helped by the newfound trendiness of an old classic cocktail, gin and tonic.

As a premium consumer goods manufacturer, Fever Tree claims to use only high quality ingredients with many coming from Sub-Saharan Africa. Its quinine, the bitter-tasting ingredient in tonic, hails from the Democratic Republic of Congo while bitter orange is procured from Tanzania.

The company also buys ginger from Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria for its ginger ale and beer.

Fever Tree’s ginger beer attracted a devout consumer base in the US, which adored its sharp and spicy bite, reflecting a high ginger content.

But, in recent years, fans have become disappointed.

Fans suspect that Fever Tree, scrimping on costs, reduced the amount of real ginger in its ginger beer recipe, swapping it for extract. Devotees lament that the swirling cloud of sediment, a telltale sign of high ginger content, is gone. With it, its spicy flavor has also vanished.

Outraged at the recipe change, the product’s top-rated reviewer on Amazon gave a 2500-word exhaustive account of her thorough investigation into the matter in which she described being ‘gas lighted’ and ‘made to feel dumb’ by the company’s US distributor.

What does this First World Problem have to do with Sub-Saharan Africa?

The fervent review shows a small yet strong demand among wealthy Western consumers for an under valued African agricultural product, ginger.

West African ginger could be just the beginning in selling a local food to Western consumers who will pay a premium for unique flavor and reputed medicinal properties.

Which African food will become the next big super food, selling at a premium to niche Western consumers? Moringa? Bissap? Baobab?

Sheer impracticality: the use of ginger as a raw ingredient in the kitchen

But, when ginger is used as a raw ingredient in the kitchen, its main drawback is that it is nearly impossible to peel given its small and twisted form.

For weeks, the kilo bag of ginger that I purchased at the market sat untouched in the fruit and veg bin of my refrigerator. Although I’d chop a bit for a curry or dal dish, I was clueless about how to use the entire kilo. Cleaning and preparing the mass of the knobby root seemed daunting.

Looking for inspiration online, I found a recipe for Malian ginger juice that called for a large amount of ginger.

I dumped the entire bag into the sink. After scrubbing the ginger clean of dirt, I attempted to peel each tiny clump.

The hard work began.

Since the vegetable peeler was double the size of each ginger clump, I awkwardly maneuvered the instrument around the root, managing to scrape off most of the peel.

Frustrated, I abandoned the clumsy peeler for a more effective tool, a paring knife. For one hour, I stood over my kitchen sink, peeling the mound of ginger. At the end, I didn’t have much to show for it – only a small pile of pale yellow nubs.

I tossed the fruit of my labor, along with lemon juice and raw brown sugar, into the blender.

With some crushed mint, it made for a refreshing beverage.

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