Ginger and Turmeric in Latin America? Update One

I had a query this week that I am throwing open to everyone: how, if at all, are ginger and turmeric used in Latin America?  And were they part of the Columbian Exchange?

Ginger plant and rhizomes

Ginger plant. Köhler, Medizinal-Plfanzen. Wikimedia Commons

I’d guess more part of the Pacific than the Atlantic Exchange.

Ginger grows easily in Mexico, for example.  I know because I was self-sufficient in ginger all my years there, planting the rhizomes at intervals in a big pot and waiting until a new crop was ready.  You can also buy it fresh in markets and grocery stores.  I don’t remember seeing ground ginger.   There is no entry for it (or for turmeric) in the first edition of Ricardo Muñoz’s magisterial Diccionario enciclopédico de la gastronomía mexicana.

Iliana de la Vega, the well-known chef at El Naranjo in Austin, Texas and expert on Mexican cuisine, tells me that ginger is used in a number of moles, the most complex of Mexican sauces, in Oaxaca and a particular mole in Querétaro in central Mexico. She also confirmed that it is used for sore throats and to aid digestion.

One excellent Mexican cook in Guanajuato told me his mother used ginger in salsas to provide “otro estilo de picante” (a different kind of piquancy).  I always meant to follow up but never did.

Fresh turmeric. Wikimedia Commons

Fresh turmeric. Wikimedia Commons

Fresh turmeric, like ginger, is available in grocery stores.   Iliana de la Vega confirms my impression that in Mexico turmeric is used for coloring (competing with annatto and saffron) and that it is used medicinally. I don’t remember ever seeing dried ground turmeric, nor do I remember recipes mentioning it.

Spices that did make it:



Coriander (only fresh)


Nutmeg (available though not much used, I think)


So, does anyone have any information or questions to add?  I will be editing this page as I mull the question over and browse through eighteenth-century facsimile cookbooks.

Tlazoteotl, a blogger living in Italy asks about parsley, thyme, oregano, marjoram, and anise.  These I did not consider because they come in the herb rather than the spice category.    Certainly they are all to be found in Mexico. Parsley is, I think, used mainly in European-style dishes.  I’m not sure about the genealogy of the oregano/marjoram family though I think it is complicated.  Anise is very widely used, particularly in baked goods.  There are a lot of alternative anisey-tasting plants in Mexico.  I think I’ve written about some of them and will try to dig the information up.

By the way, if you are interested in the globalization of Mexican food or if you are living in Europe and want to make Mexican dishes, Tlazoteotl, has a great list of mail order sources in Spain, Italy, Germany, and Austria on the home page.

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25 thoughts on “Ginger and Turmeric in Latin America? Update One

  1. Don Cuevas

    I found and bought ground turmeric at Bonanza, in San Miguel.

    When we last visited Oaxaca, we say lots of fresh ginger for sale in a smaller mercado. (La Libertad?)
    I can consistently find fresh ginger at a couple of stalls in the Pátzcuaro municipal mercado. The bigger supermercado chains in Morelia also have it. It’s a real pleasure to find it so ubiquitously and at a low price. See also Mercado San Juan, Col. Centro,México D.F.

    Happy New Year, Rachel!

    Don Cuevas

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks Michael. That confirms my view that it is widely available in Mexico. Do you know if it is used in moles etc in Morelia?

  2. Nick Trachet

    The spices you mention are all much in use in the Guyanas and many islands (Trinidad, Curacao, certainly Jamaica…), as I witnessed during my years in Suriname. There they ware used by the indentured labourers that arrived after abolition of slavery (July 1, 1863 for Surinam). First they came from China and India, later from Java.

  3. Albert Moon

    I am fascinated by food culture and really the anthropology of food in general. I stumbled upon your blog and as an avid traveler and lover of all foods, I would say that the globalization of food is pervasive in the Puget Sound area. From migrants who help with crops in Central Washington, Yakima arguably has some of the best Mexican food in the state and as I have worked as a cook in many kitchens around the Seattle area, there is a constant exchange between the cooks which many come from Mexico and Central America.

    I’ve lived in Chile and while the food is much less spicy in nature, just in the last 15 years, Chile has gone through a complete transformation on the culinary side with the introduction of US-type fast food and high-fat, high-carb diets. It is actually a shame to see them go from having these wonderful home cooked meals and small kiosk restaurants who cook meals-to-go to the ever evolving big chain fast food restaurants.

    We are seeing a return to local food that is cooked from scratch here in Seattle but
    it will be interesting to see how far it goes. It seems as though each city goes through an evolution based on the immigrant population that decide to open restaurants and from the first Pho restaurant back in 1994 near the University of Washington campus to Pho restaurants numbering in the hundreds now around the Seattle area, this is just one example of how Seattle is taking in all that Vietnamese cuisine has to offer.

    Anyway, sorry for my long-winded reply. I look forward to reading more and hopefully many great exchanges.


  4. Mexico Cooks!

    The vegetable vendors at the Friday tianguis where I shop (Av. Nuevo León con Calle Campeche, Col. La Condesa, Mexico City) sell piles of fresh ginger. The rhizomes today were huge, fresh, and fragrant. I bought a big piece for Chinese cooking, of which I do quite a bit. It also makes a marvelous tea. I believe that a good bit of ginger’s usefulness in Mexico is as a medicinal tea.

    Turmeric (cúrcuma, in Spanish) is always available at most Mexico City supermarkets, as well as at enclosed markets and neighborhood tianguis. Again, its use here is primarily medicinal and as a coloring agent. It is believed to have strong anti-oxidant properties.

    Vendors insist that it is actually azafrán (saffron), and supermarket shelf labels give it that name as well. I have heard that it is possible to boil the roots, dry them, and grind them, but…

    What an interesting topic, Rachel.


    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Whoops, Cristina, how did I miss your comment? Thanks so much for your usual careful, detailed account. So glad that your experience bears out my own intuitions. I’ll be posting another update tomorrow.

  5. Heike Vibrans

    Hi, Rachel,
    Interesting. I didn’t know about the use of ginger in moles, and thought that it was mainly used as a medicinal and in Chinese food. Quite a few exotic herbs and spices, such as borage or sweet basil are used more in medicine and ritual than in the traditional Mexican kitchen, apparently, and are mostly sold for that purpose, at least in the center of the country.

    However, from what I have seen up to now, tumeric is mainly used as a (cheap) substitute of saffron for paella and other Spanish-origin dishes. It is usually sold under the same name, azafrán. My students tend to think that it is the real thing, and don’t even know about the original saffron.


    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks, Heike, specially for the mention of borage and sweet basil. It’s not really surprsing that so many of these herbs come in first as medicinals. That’s such a common pattern world wide. And now that you mention it, I remember my friend Beatriz Woolrich trying to persuade people in a food seminar in Antropologicas at the UNAM that “azafrán” was not azafran.

        1. Rachel Laudan Post author

          Hmm. I don’t remember seeing it much in Mexico. At first I thought it might be for feeding to hens, since Mexicans like their eggs yellow. Lots of other uses, of course.

          1. Mexico Cooks!

            We’re drifting a bit here, but a couple of things:
            –as far as I know, Mexico’s egg producers feed their hens ground marigold petals mixed with their other food to produce the gorgeous golden yolks we enjoy here.
            –look around at the entryways to small businesses. There is almost always a sweet basil plant in a pot at or near the doorway. Its ‘magic’ is that it is believed to attract business and money.

          2. Rachel Laudan Post author

            Thanks Cristina. Must do follow up post on this whole issue. I’ve read the marigold petal story too though a quick google did not bring up confirmation. And that’s the reason for the basil plants! Thanks so much.

  6. Bea

    Interesting. The Philippines uses comparatively few gingers than its neighbors, despite the great diversity in the family (save for plain ginger, which is fairly common).

    The predominant sauté spices are onion and garlic, especially in the Tagalog regions (we use way more garlic than our neighbors I believe).

    Ginger is a staple is used in coconut milk dishes and chicken and fish dishes and soups. Turmeric is used sparingly in some regional dishes, and more in the Moslem areas in the South. It is consumed mostly in the cities medicinally and the local name translates into “yellow ginger”. Galangal is very abundant but hardly used (I’ve only seen it as a vinegar or fish paste complement so far). Sand ginger is used sparingly as a medicine:

    Ginger and turmeric are the only ginger rhizomes sold in the markets. Could they have gotten to Mexico through our galleon trade?

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks for this, Bea. I have to do a final roundup post on ginger and turmeric and the Filipino link is so crucial. I would bet they got to Mexico via the Manila Galleon. It seems unlikely that they came from Europe or Africa.

  7. Lolga Rodriguez

    I have bought fresh tumeric in Ruben’s in McAllen, Texas , Chinese markets in Arlington, Texas and at International Foods in El Paso. I use it in soups, carne guisada, tamales and rice dishes. I store some fresh source in the freezer or dry it up and ground it.

  8. Rama

    Hope it is not too late to leave this comment. I got into reasonable amount of use of ginger on a daily basis during the last 4 years after a visit to an Ayurvedic clinic in Kerala, India (where it was used freely in their cafeteria for their patients) and based on my Indian heritage and craving for spicy-hot food (my stomach would no longer tolerate green or red chillies and I suppose I have been allergic to black pepper since childhood). I normally extract the ginger liquid (one gallon of liquid from approximately 1 lb of raw ginger roots and grinding in a mixer with water) and add it to most juices I drink (and I added sour ones such as black cherry and pomegranate that I could not drink before to that list) in 3:1 (juice to ginger increasing ginger if I felt like) ratio. I have also added few other culinary / healthy seeds, herbs and roots from that part of the world into my diet around the same time.
    Since then I have gotten rid of worst case of GERD, have not had any cold and fever during the last 3 years and have gotten much stronger (though I am going through a personal life crisis that no one could imagine). My environmental allergy problem is mostly gone.

  9. Tom

    My wife is indigenous to Ecuador.. they grow turmeric and ginger and have been using these plants for hundreds of years…. some other notable plants are yucca and taro root, which they refer to as “papchina” or chinese potato… contrary to popular belief, they dont just slap on the China part because they feel like it and it is “exotic”.. there are literally hundreds of “exotic” fruits and vegetables out there. They have no reason to place a name like that on a plant. Furthermore, they have names for these plants ingrained in their language(Shuar), indicating that they were introduced well before heavy Spanish settlement.. There is a mountain of evidence indicating travel and communication between nations well before recorded history claims. The biggest evidence in language and in edible/medicinal plants..

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Tom, fascinating. A parallel puzzle for those who believe in late contact across the Pacific is the sweet potato. It was already in the Hawaiian Islands when Captain Cook got there. I think there will be lots of interesting developments in understanding early globalization in the next few years.


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