Ginger comes from the horizontal rootstock (rhizome) of a reed-like plant. It is a key ingredient in dishes across Asia. It is native to India, China (where it is called "jiang") and Malaysia, and has been used as a condiment and medicine in these countries for over 5,000 years. It is traditionally used in Chinese New Year celebrations, as a symbol of longevity.
It was one of the first Asian spices to be adopted in Europe, during the first century BC. Arab traders kept its origin secret for a long time, and it was widely believed that this ground "white spice" came from the root of a pepper tree. Indeed, cheaper than pepper, it popularity continued to grow until well into the 18th century. This fresh, crisp and subtly spiced root then fell out of use completely until the early 20th century (except in the English-speaking world), but has made a comeback over recent years.
It is best enjoyed young and fine-skinned, when its flesh has a deliciously astringent and snappy taste.