Chinese ginger is a plant that grows in China and other countries in Southeast Asia, with multiple uses as food and medicine. It is popularly known in English as the fingerroot, due to the typical finger-like shape of its rhizomes. The name Chinese ginger can be misleading, since it is not related to the normal ginger (Zingiber officinale) and is part of a different genus. It is known as krachai in Thailand, where it is an ingredient in local cuisine.
Chinese ginger is a small herb, which grows erect to a maximum height of 50 cm. The rhizome looks like a cluster of fingers and it has a bright yellow color and a strong aroma. Chinese ginger only has a few leaves with an ovate or oblong share, about 50 cm long and 12 cm in width. The pink flowers with a tubular shape are located on terminal inflorescences and have a noticeable fragrance.
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The herb has the scientific name Boesenbergia rotunda and is part of the Boesenbergia genera and the Zingiberaceae family, different from the one of the true ginger. It is a very popular herb in Asia, where it is a common ingredient in food and medicinal products. The medical properties of the herb are well known in traditional medicine and have lately attracted the interest of modern researchers, with several studies on its composition and effects.
Studies have identified some of the active elements of the Chinese ginger, these have been produced synthetically using bioinformatics and very modern drug design technologies. The biosynthetic pathways of B. rotunda metabolites can be investigated further using genomics and other related sciences such as proteomics, metabolomics and transcriptomics. Eventually, all of the bioactive compounds in this herb will be discovered and their exact action will be well understood. The compounds known so far have a great bioactive potential, which encourages scientists to start new studies, using cutting edge nanotechnology and polypharmacology.
The Chinese ginger is widespread in South East Asia, where it is used in cuisine and traditional medicine. It is considered effective against a number of diseases, such as intestinal pain, aphthous ulcers, dysentery, dry mouth and leucorrhoea.
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In the entire region between India and China, including Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, this herb is a common ingredient in many local dishes. It is thought to boost appetite, which is why it is usually included in soups and curries. It is commonly cultivated in all small farms in the entire area.
Traditional ethnic medicine makes use of Chinese ginger against numerous diseases like digestive disorders, flatulence, stomach ache, rheumatism, muscle pain, gout, peptic ulcer and dyspepsia. It is also considered to have carminative and febrifuge properties. Jamu, a traditional Indonesian tonic for women, is prepared from Chinese ginger. It is a treatment for leucorrhea as well as a beauty aid, administered to young girls and women after childbirth. The freshly harvested rhizomes are a popular diuretic and a strong anti-inflammatory used to treat swelling, tooth and gum diseases, dental caries, dermatitis, dry cough, diarrhea, common cold and open wounds. It is also known for its action against fungi and parasites. It can cure skin itchiness from mite bites, scabies, intestinal round worms and a wide range of fungal infections.
In Thailand, Chinese ginger is widely used for its aphrodisiac properties and known under the name of Thai ginseng. The plant is believed to possess numerous other medical properties, some of these have been confirmed by modern research while others are only attested in folk medicine. People of Thailand believe the leaves can counter poisoning and allergies caused by food. AIDS patients in the country also consume the leaves as a form of natural medication against this lethal disease.
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Traditional practitioners use the roots and rhizomes of Chinese ginger to treat several conditions. They can cure cough and ulcers inside the mouth and can be applied on zones affected by rheumatism after they are crushed. Roots and rhizomes are known for their carminative and stomachic effects, being able to boost digestion, increase appetite and reduce the production of intestinal gas. These parts of Chinese ginger might also include compounds with antiseptic and anti-inflammatory effects, which could also help combat cancer. The bioactive compounds are currently being studied by researchers. Chinese ginger is also grown as an ornamental species.
In Indonesia, the Chinese ginger is named temu kunci and it is a very popular ingredient in the cuisine of the island of Java.
Thai cooks use Chinese ginger as a key ingredient in dishes such as the kaeng tai pla and name it krachai. The name is similar in Cambodia, where it is known as k'cheay and used in paste dishes like kroeung. It is available in stores in frozen or pickled form and found under the name of Yai-macha in Meitei. Chinese ginger can be confused with the lesser galangal, which is actually Alpinia officinarum, another related plant from the Zingiberaceae family.
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Chinese ginger can be consumed as a vegetable but it is more often used for its flavoring qualities. In India, Malaysia and the countries of Indochina it is widely cultivated for the edible roots and rhizomes, which are eaten as pickles or used as a spice in food. Young rhizomes can also be consumed raw or cooked like other similar plants. Fresh young shoots can be eaten raw or included in salads. A traditional soya bean cake of Indonesia, named tempeh, is wrapped in Chinese ginger and teak tree (Tectona grandis) leaves.
In the wild, the Chinese ginger grows in both tropical wet and deciduous forests as a rhizome geophyte. It can also be found spontaneously on hill slopes or lowland shaded locations, either isolated or in groups. However, it is mostly sourced from cultivation today, especially in Indochina.
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Despite its name, the Chinese ginger is not only native to the Chinese province of Yunnan, but to a more extended area all the way to Malaysia. Because of its popularity, it has become naturalised in other Asian countries. It is mostly cultivated in small family farms across Indochina but can still be found in the wild, on hill slopes, forests and shady locations in general.
The best method for propagation is the use of rhizome cuttings. Chinese ginger tolerates sandy soils but for best results and fastest growth use fertile loamy soil with very good drainage. The Chinese ginger needs about five months until the roots and rhizomes are large enough to be harvested. If these are not removed, the plant has a life cycle of several years and the young shoots can be consumed as vegetables or for their medical properties.