The sweet life

The sweet life

A little over two years ago, mum became very ill – and I became very worried. Because that was when I realised I was not ready to lose her yet; in fact, I was not ready to lose either one of my parents yet. But then again, I don’t think anyone is really prepared to lose their parent, especially if they have been very present in their lives.

Don’t get me wrong, I was hardly the devoted daughter, a Nyonya girl who refused to listen to her family on what to study (law), when to get married (as soon as possible because we need to keep the family line going), how to conduct her life – listen to your parents, keep your opinions to yourself, be a good Nyonya girl, don’t let people talk about you. It might sound cliched these days, but hey, that Elsa has nothing on Nyonya girls when it comes to concealing and not feeling.

Having said all that, when mum took to her bed, partly due to ill health and in larger part due to depression on the death of her younger brother, my brother and I became worried and I became increasingly anxious and then somewhat panicky. While my mother and I did not initially have a good relationship, we had begun getting along better, ironically only after I moved out in my mid-20s. So no, I was not ready to lose her.

Because part of the problem was that she wasn’t eating, I resorted to the kitchen, working on recipes to tempt her to put food into her mouth, at least get some nutrition in her.

One of the dishes that I made was chicken porridge, which got her eating a little. But I stumbled on something that helped her regain her strength faster.

In my early 20s, there was a brand called Culpeper, a purveyor of all things natural and English such as essential oils and candied ginger. I remembered buying my mother one of those round little tin containers of candied ginger, and she loved it. As a rookie journalist earning precious little, each time I bought a tin of that, I felt like I had to sell an arm and a few toes. But I did it anyway, because it was a treat for her.

A compulsive label reader even then, I had always felt a little cheated and not a little outraged when I read the label and realised that the ultimate raw material in there – ginger – was from Malaysia.

Fast forward almost two decades and the memory of her smiling whenever she took a piece of that candied ginger lodged in my brain, contrasting with images of her in bed, practically wasting away.

It was then that I started scouring the markets for the best types of ginger and began finding out more about local herbs and spices and finally, experimenting with sugar and spices. Again – irony – girls are supposed to be sugar and spices and now my favourite items to play with in the kitchen are sugar and spices.

So after months of experimenting, I finally got it – the perfect candied ginger. Surprisingly, it is not the hardest thing in the world to do. Actually, it’s relatively simple. It took about two months to get it perfect, but for the smile on my mother’s face when she tasted it, it was worth all the time in the world.

The ingredients for candied ginger

One kg of local ginger

500gms of sugar

One teaspoonful of rose water

Three cloves

Half a star anise

One cm of a cinnamon stick

Step One: Prep

The type of ginger used in this is important. While the ginger from the Philippines and China are less fibrous, they also pack less zing. Believe it or not, Malaysian ginger is actually regarded as one of the best in the word in terms of quality. And if you can get your hands on Bentong ginger… your candied ginger will be something else.

Also make sure you’re not buying young ginger. Buy the old ginger.

What takes the most time is the peeling of the ginger. Use a spoon to scrape the skin off. After a wash and rinse, dice the ginger roughly into 1cm by 1cm cubes. Sizing is fairly important because of cooking time as well as the candying process.

Step Two: Cooking

Weigh the diced ginger, it should be about 650gms or less after the peeling and dicing.

Put it in a pot with about two litres of water, toss in the spices. Bring it to a high boil then lower the flame to about medium and boil for about 90 minutes to two hours. How you know the ginger is ready for candying – stick a small knife into a piece of ginger. If it goes in and comes out smooth, without resistance, it’s done.

After boiling, strain the ginger and fish out the spices. Keep the ginger juice aside.

Step Three: Candying

Put the ginger back in the pot, together with the sugar and about half a cup or 125ml of the ginger juice.

The sugar will melt and you will see a lot of liquid. Do not be afraid – it’s just melted sugar. Once it reaches a boil, lower the flame to about medium and let it boil, stirring it every 10 to 15 minutes or so.

After about 45 minutes to an hour, there will be very little liquid left. Toss in that teaspoonful of rose water and stir. The idea is merely to add a floral fragrance to the candied result.

Now, this is where it gets a little tricky – Let the liquid boil until it is almost dry. As the liquid dries up, you’re going to start seeing sugar crystals form again.

Take a spoon – ideally a wooden one so you won’t burn your hand – and start stirring the ginger as the last of the liquid dries off. As soon as you do not see any more liquid take it off the fire and continue stirring the ginger. The sugar would now have crystallised again.

Take a sieve, sieve out the sugar and put the sugar in a jar.

Take what is left of the ginger juice, put it back in the pot, which would have some hardened sugar left at the bottom. Bring it to a boil, let the sugar melt into the juice.

Once the ginger cools, you will have beautiful golden lumps of pedas ginger candy. Store in a dry jar and put it somewhere cool. It will last for a long time, although chances are you might have friends breaking into the jar if you let them have a taste of it.

The sugar – use it in your tea or coffee for that extra little zing of ginger. Or add into any dish you’re cooking that requires ginger, as this will give your food another layer of flavour.

The ginger syrup – boil a little pandan and add the syrup and ice. It makes for a lovely pick-me-up on a hot day.


Ginger and its uses

This rhizome has been used for many centuries and by many cultures for many purposes.

As herbal and complementary therapy becomes more popular, there have been an increasing number of studies on the health and medicinal benefits of ginger and many studies have suggested that increasing the consumption of ginger can promote increased energy levels and help with weight management issues.

Some studies show that ginger helps in addressing digestive issues. The phenolic compounds found in ginger are known to help relieve gastrointestinal irritation, stimulate saliva and bile production and suppress gastric contractions and movement of food and fluids through the GI tract.

But then again, Asians have been using ginger as an appetite stimulant, as a means to manage nausea, in post-natal treatment and even to “heat” up the body in cold weather, especially in the wake of a bad cold.

To make ginger tea, either to address nausea or to relieve sinus issues, mix the aforementioned ginger juice with a little ginger sugar and hot water and a few drops of lemon juice. Sip slowly.

Because of its anti-inflammatory properties, ginger has also been used in traditional treatment to reduce inflammation and treat inflammatory conditions. Maybe that’s why a cup of hot ginger tea helps when a woman is going through a bad bout of period pains.

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