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?
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, 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.