Cheap Eats:
Thai Ginger Soda

Helen of Troy may have been a great beauty, but spices have launched more ships. The world has pursued big, exotic flavors for almost as long as the world has eaten—and among big, exotic flavors, almost nothing surpasses Zingiber officinale, better known as ginger. Ginger was one of the "big three" spices (along with black pepper and cinnamon) for which everyone wanted to get to the Far East.

Ginger has been enjoyed in its native tropical Asia (probably India and Malaysia) since the misty ages of prehistory. In fact, it has been cultivated there for so long that its wild forebear no longer exists.

The plant's name has its ultimate origin in the Sanskrit word sringavera, which means "horn-root." The evolution of the name, from sringavera to ginger, is actually easier to follow than some word histories. Sringavera became dzungebir in Persian and dzingiberiin Greek. In Latin, it turned into zingiber (hence its scientific name). Italian, Spanish, and French called (and call) it zenzero, gengibre, and gingembre, respectively. German gets a little farther afield with Ingwer, and Dutch offers gember. Old English was gingifer, which traced back pretty directly to the Latin.

The movements of the spice itself follow fairly closely the same route as its name. From India, where it has long been lavishly employed in the local cuisines, it was brought to Persia by Darius the Great in the fifth century BC After that, it popped up in each succeeding important civilization. (Ginger's large, flattish rhizomes, commonly called "hands" in today's spice trade, shipped well, and were therefore a popular and important commodity of trade in ancient times, even when other things weren't traveling well.) It was so popular in Rome that the government counted on it for income—they taxed it so heavily that, despite being abundant, it was 15 times the cost of black pepper—but it still sold briskly.

Often, ginger was even more appreciated for its nutritional value or health benefits (and though some of the old beliefs have been discredited, the medicinal value of ginger is still held in high regard, even in Western medicine). A medical school founded in Salerno, Italy during the Middle Ages published a health book that spoke highly of ginger, and though they touted its value as a digestive aid and brain stimulant, it was probably their belief that it was an aphrodisiac that caused its wild popularity throughout the medieval world.

When the Renaissance began, strong flavors went out the door in French cuisine, but the Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, Flemish, and Scandinavian countries still value it, primarily as sweets or in beverages, as they have done since the days of the Norman expansion. Of course, ginger has never lost its huge popularity in the East, appearing in everything from first course to last, and continues to grow in popularity worldwide, as varied cuisines that utilize it become more widely available. (And for those who just can't get enough ginger, check out the website of ginger specialists The Ginger People, at

I've made a couple of trips to Thailand, a gloriously exotic place that is among the several tropical locales where ginger grows easily and everywhere. It's large, bright, fragrant flowers can be seen decorating most backyards, and hands of ginger are piled high in the markets. It flavors stir fries and curries, teas and sweets.

Tea is, as in most of Asia, the most widely consumed beverage in Thailand. However, because of its latitude, Thailand doesn't really get cold weather, and barely even manages cool in the hills of the north. Much of the year is steamy, so cold drinks are welcome. In Thailand, iced coffee is very popular, and is sold canned even more commonly than Coca Cola is. Sweet, locally-produced sodas and fruit juices are also common. This sweet ginger soda from Thailand is the perfect treat for a summer day, with a delightfully tropical taste, along with a bit of a bite, thanks to ginger's fiery nature.

Thai Ginger Soda

¼ cup chilled khing chuam (recipe below)

1 cup (or more) chilled seltzer water or club soda


Combine the syrup and soda water and stir to blend. Add ice. Enjoy.


Lime and ginger make a nice flavor combination, so I sometimes use lime-flavored seltzer water with the syrup.

Be aware that the 1 cup of seltzer is more a starting point than a guarantee. It's authentic, but I find it is too sweet for my tastes, and I add seltzer until it tastes right (usually at least another ½ cup).

If serving this for company, a sprig of mint makes an attractive garnish, or you might use a lime wedge. Both mint and lime blend well with the flavor of ginger (though maybe not at the same time).

Khing Chuam
(Ginger Syrup)

2 quarts water

1 lb. fresh ginger, coarsely chopped

4 cups sugar

In a large saucepan over high heat, bring water and ginger to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer, uncovered, for 1 hour. Remove from the heat, and let cool slightly. Strain and measure the liquid. Determine how much more liquid you need to create four cups of liquid, and pour that much additional (or slightly more) hot water over the boiled ginger. (I will even reheat this slightly, because ginger has so much flavor that you'll never get all of it to go into the liquid you've just poured off, and the liquid from this second step will be almost as dark and flavorful as from the first—but you'll still get a good bit of flavor just by pouring the water over the boiled ginger and straining it immediately.)

Place the 4 cups of ginger-liquid in a clean saucepan and stir in the sugar. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Cook, uncovered, until the liquid is syrupy, about 30 minutes. (Cool a spoonful after 30 minutes to test.) Remove from the heat and set aside to cool to room temperature. Pour into a clean, dry bottle or jar, cover tightly, and refrigerate.


Khing is the Thai word for ginger.

If you like this as much as I do, it probably won't hang around the refrigerator too long. However, if you use it slowly, don't worry. With that much sugar, if you keep it in the fridge, it should be safe into the next century.

Ginger syrup is also commonly used to flavor iced tea, and I think it even makes a lovely syrup for ice cream.

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