We ate a lot of ginger in acupuncture school. Those whose palates objected – or, as in the case of one woman, rebelled in allergic restraint – simply didn’t partake in the snacks we passed around the classroom. To the rest of us, it seemed a considerable sacrifice. Because ginger is one of the few medicinals in the Chinese herbal pharmacopoeia that are palatable, and also one of few natural remedies that suit most body types in Chinese medicine, we added it to pretty much everything.
We grated ginger into our congee and steeped sugary gold coins of crystallised baby ginger root in our tea. I had a wicked sweet tooth back then and would often end a long day with a cup of spicy, soothing ginger milk, a stomach settler my mother fed us during childhood as a nightcap. It’s made by bobbing a juicy, peeled knob of fresh-cut ginger into whole milk as it warms over a low flame, then sweetened with a little cane sugar and strained steaming hot into a waiting mug. The consumption of cow’s milk, antithetical to ginger in its “energetic” properties, was scorned on campus. But I drank it in the privacy of my home, certain that ginger made up for the damage from the dairy.
Chinese medicine was also three years of aggressive agitation as a means to an end. Imagine being repeatedly elbowed by a fellow passenger on a bus until you finally lose your cool. In the real world, whether you snap because you’re short-tempered, having a bad day, or because you have a particular aversion to being touched by strangers is irrelevant. But in Chinese medicine, it’s everything. We apply this approach to the body: how it expresses itself is less interesting than why. Fifteen patients may show up with pink-eye, but the treatment plan for each is almost guaranteed to be different and is designed according to an individual’s unique constitution. A good practitioner is part doctor, part bespoke tailor and part crazy scientist. So it’s probably no surprise that most of us were also obsessed with cooking.
What determines mastery of a craft as complex, ancient and subject to personal technique as traditional medicine or cookery? On a case-by-case basis, a successful outcome can sometimes have less to do with skill than with the recipient’s responsiveness. Sometimes, health doesn’t improve in spite of the very best treatment. Likewise, gifted chefs have been responsible for some of the most unpalatable things I’ve ever tasted. There’s also the possibility of the occasional fluke, both in terms of the margin of error, and as the potential for unexpected delight, like the time my 4-year-old cousin accidentally made the world’s most perfectly round pancake.
During the three-year programme, I don’t think I met an oatmeal cookie or a bowl of noodles that hadn’t been spiked with fresh, dried or candied ginger. It was a minor lifestyle adjustment next to getting needled almost every day, and suffering through mandatory tai chi and qi gong practice during lunch break, but it required no less commitment. I achieved A+ status addiction, maintaining sole responsibility for the consistent depletion of a bowl of chewy Indonesian tapioca starch and ginger candies intended for patients in the clinic. And yes, I know: taking sweets from the ailing is as low as it gets. But then I remember that you can’t harvest ginger from the Earth without stooping first.
Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico