Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Candied Ginger: A Tale of Orientalism, Isolation and Recipe!Fail

Let me begin by saying that Colonial Australia was as racist as Donald Trump singing "Kung Fu Fighting" while wearing blackface.

As a society, we were steeped in the fascinated revulsion with other societies that Edward Said would later describe as "Orientalism": a loathing of the 'other' coupled with an adoration of the fashionably exotic. (If you want to read more about this concept, you can do so here, here or here - where people have more time to write eloquently about theory and are presumably not being pestered by a toddler to peel in succession every piece of fruit in the fruit bowl).

In any case, the Colonial Australian attitude to China can be fairly summed up in the following two images.

Chinese people are scary, slimy monsters. With claws.

The caption of the original cartoon reads, "Hi Yah! Me teachee you. Plenty muchee." I could not make this up.

[No heading]. (1896, July 16). Quiz and the Lantern (Adelaide, SA : 1890 - 1900), p. 9. Retrieved September 9, 2015, from

Chinese culture (when used by other white people in ways we're comfortable with) is sooo pretty! And exotic! Oooh, a vase!

From the original article: "Its shape is that of an Oriental water bottle or Carafe".

THE DORE VASE. (1893, December 30). The Bacchus Marsh Express (Vic. : 1866 - 1918), p. 1. Retrieved September 9, 2015, from

So what does any of this have to do with cooking?

Well, despite the fact that Colonial Australia was home to many migrants from all over Asia, including many Chinese cooks, Chinese recipes were not a common part of cooking columns in newspapers.

This made it all the more surprising when I came across a letter from a woman calling herself Hebe (the Greek goddess associated with youth), asking to be initiated "into that Oriental mystery" of making preserved ginger.
Sir, - I have for along time to get a recipe for making preserved ginger. I never thought of writing to you; neither, after   being advised by a friend, did I care to trouble you about such an insignificant thing, but hav- ing utterly failed in my endeavours to find it out myself, I now appeal to you. My great difficulty has been to make the ginger swell,   and if you would be so kind as to initiate me and all your lady friends into that Ori- entail mystery, you will greatly oblige
Aug. 10 HEBE
PRESERVED GINGER. (1868, August 22). The Australasian (Melbourne, Vic. : 1864 - 1946), p. 25. Retrieved December 14, 2014, from

What struck me most about this letter - aside from a hint towards the deep current of Orientalism in Australian society - was how frustrating and lonely life must have been in the pre-internet age for people whose intellectual curiosity could not be satisfied by their immediate social circle.

I am just old enough to remember the tail-end of this era myself, and how thrilled I was when I realised that I could answer almost any question within seconds using the internet. This excitement arose even though I had been lucky, and my mother (the town librarian) had also put together a large and meticulously organised library in our home.

Despite the fact that Australian society, even in the Colonial era, was largely urban, I think that it still would have been possible to feel isolated in the middle of early Melbourne or Sydney, if you had a question about ginger that nobody could answer for you.

Well, cookery friends, we live in an era where questions can be answered, and I am here to answer the question that is no doubt on your lips by this point: "Did the recipe work?"

Things were initially looking good. My wife, who doesn't like candied ginger, cruised past the jar and said darkly that they looked exactly like the ones from the shop. For a few days, I left the jar on the bench, and snacked on these little bites of gingery goodness as I went about my day.

But after about a week, I noticed something ominous. The ginger was changing colour, and a pool of sugar syrup was gathering in the bottom of the jar. As the old saying goes, with this recipe I managed to snatch failure from the jaws of success. My candied ginger looked and tasted great, but unfortunately didn't keep very well. Which, for a preserve, presents a fairly fundamental problem.

I'm going to give you the recipe as I made it anyway, because if I'd known they weren't going to keep I would have cheerfully eaten the whole tray of these hot, sweet little bundles of sugar on the day. Modern recipes that may prove more fruitful can be found here, here and here.

It all looked so promising at this stage.

Here is the original recipe from the editorial team of The Australasian:

[Green ginger is far the best, and ought to be used for this purpose, but if not to be had simmer the required quantity of dry ginger until tender; then put it to soak for a while in cold water. When quite soft take it out and drain thoroughly. When dry, take sugar of good quality, or better still sugar candy, of equal weight; melt slowly over the fire, and add the ginger before the sugar is too hot.

Then simmer slowly until the sugar has quite penetrated the ginger. With green ginger the process is simple, but great care must be used to make a good preserve with dry ginger.] ED.

PRESERVED GINGER. (1868, August 22). The Australasian (Melbourne, Vic. : 1864 - 1946), p. 25. Retrieved December 14, 2014, from

There may have been some wastage in my approach to cutting ginger into 1cm chunks.
"Oriental Mystery" Preserved Ginger
Fresh ginger, cut into 1cm chunks
An equal weight in white sugar
1/4 the weight in water (for water, millilitres and grams are the same)

Cooking Time
1 1/2 hours

This depends on how much ginger you use.

Slice the ginger, and pat it dry.
Dissolve the sugar in water over a low heat, until the sugar crystals are completely dissolved but the mixture is not yet very hot.
Add the ginger, and bring the mixture to a gentle simmer.
Cook until the sugar syrup has thoroughly soaked into the ginger. This takes about an hour. The syrup will have almost completely dissolved (it will coat the ginger as it cools). If you’re unsure, take out a thicker piece of ginger and cut it in half – it should be dark and glossy all the way through. If there is a lighter bit in the middle it’s not done yet. It should also taste slightly sweet all the way through when done.
Allow the ginger to cool a little in the pot, until the syrup is starting to clump around the pieces.
Tip it all out onto a lined baking tray or chopping board, and separate the pieces quickly using two forks (or your fingers, if you have asbestos fingers)
The ginger is significantly stronger and hotter than modern crystallised ginger.  

A complete waste of a good jar.

So in summary, Australia has always had a problem with racism; life was rough for the intellectually curious before the advent of the internet; and the "oriental mystery" of preserving ginger still eludes me.

What is your experience of Orientalism, cookery friends? Have you had any success with preserved ginger?