More than just spices!

by Herman, 2009

 The Flying Dusun Blog!


Gingers in Borneo | Gingers General Information | Zingiber officinale | References

For an excellent introduction and much more information on gingers in Borneo I recommend “Gingers of Sarawak” by Dr Axel Dalberg Poulsen. A highly informative pocket guide, the book can be ordered through Natural History Publications. “Gingers of Sarawak” was my primary source of reference for this article and I am indeed thankful to Dr Poulsen, who was kind enough to look into my writing, for his corrections of my layman ginger definitions in the photos.

For those who then wish to learn more about one of the perhaps most intriguing ginger varieties in Borneo the book "Etlingera of Borneo," by the same publisher and author is a must. 

Amomum kinabaluense - a species of ginger native to the area of Mt Kinabalu

Gingers in Borneo

I have always been fascinated by gingers, especially after so many years here in Borneo where ginger is not simply a spice. In fact, many more plants in the ginger family are used for other purposes than for food, a fact that “my” tourists always greet with many ‘aah's’ and ‘ooh's’.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is the “official” ginger, known the world over mainly as a spice for many exotic dishes, and more recently also as a tea that has a multitude of beneficial virtues. Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is another “ginger” though many don’t immediately recognise it as such, and then there is galangal (Alpinia galanga), also a ‘ginger’ and known by those who like Thai cuisine. Its sharp, spicy taste and tang is quite unlike that of common ginger; when pounded and fried it has a distinct 'pine' flavour. Another ginger rhizome encountered in Borneo kitchens, albeit rarely, is kencur (Kaempferia galanga – sometimes called ‘lily ginger’ because of its delicate flowers resembling lilies), which has a very distinctive flowery taste – again totally different from your ‘normal’ ginger.

Kencur (Kaempferia galanga), from the Donggongon Tamu

The part usually used in the above gingers – ginger, turmeric, galangal and kencur – is the underground stem, also called rhizome; however, the leaves of turmeric and kencur are equally frequently used in local preparations, even as salads: they add interesting exotic notes to meat and seafood dishes, but in taste and aroma they have nothing in common with ordinary ginger!

Other plants in the ginger family yield different edible parts, the torch ginger (Etlingera elatior) being probably the most widely known. The flowering bud of this striking ginger, which grows in the wild and up to five meters tall, has a very distinctive, rather strong fragrance and a slight tang, not always immediately appreciated by western palates. While the buds grow into spectacular flowers – the torch ginger is a popular landscaping element – for culinary purposes normally only the young and still tightly folded buds are used. This ginger, which is called tompu in Sabah gives spice and colour to a number of curries, fish soups, stir-fried vegetables and even salads. It can be bought on local markets and tamu all over Borneo. The fruit of torch ginger, extremely sour, is also very much appreciated, either as a snack with a bit of salt, dissolved in water as a refreshing drink or even for making ‘hinava’, a fresh fish pickle in which the lime juice normally used is replaced by the torch ginger fruit. Then there is tuhau (Etlingera coccinea), a ginger of which the stem is used. The stalk - botanists will tell us that it is actually the leafy shoot - is peeled, and the soft, pinkish inner part is pounded and conserved in vinegar, sometimes with chillies. Tuhau is definitively something of an acquired taste. It is sharp, even fresh somewhat sourish, and quite a statement in taste. Here in Sabah it is sold on markets, usually in small plastic containers, and hugely appreciated by everybody. It is eaten as a relish with rice, together with other dishes. Its characteristic aroma is unmistakable once you have tried it, but be warned, you might find it a bit overpowering. Children also like to suckle the nectar out of the flowers of tuhau. Its inflorescence appears at ground level with several long, red flowers bordered by yellow.

Torch Ginger (Etlingera elatior) in full bloom

Etlingera elatior fruit (Kg Longkogungan, Sabah)

The above fruit used for making hinava (Kg Pongobonon, Sabah)

These are now just six plants in the ginger family which are used in the kitchen for their aroma and edible parts here in Sabah, and there are a couple of more you might be familiar with: cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) and zedoary (Curcuma zedoaria), as well as Guinea pepper or grains of paradise (Aframomum melegueta). However, the ginger family (Zingiberaceae) counts more than 1200 species! Most of them grow in tropical forests, and Borneo harbours over 200 species, many of which find other uses in the daily life of the locals. Thus, when travelling through Sarawak the keen observer will find that pepper, and also rice grains are dried on mats made from the stems of particularly tall gingers, such as those of the genus Etlingera. The leaves are removed from the stem, which is then split and dried, and through a series of manipulations varying from one area to another one obtains tough, up to three meter long bands to create anything from coarse ‘working mats’ to fine baskets and trays. Curiously, in Sabah there are no ‘ginger mats’, but the large leaves of Etlingera were used for temporary roofs – such as the roofs of huts in the rice fields which were only used for one year. Other gingers yield wide leaves ideal for wrapping rice, or tough fibres used to tie up game after a hunt, and some have such sturdy stalks that they can be used as walking sticks, but only for a day. Disposable walking sticks, so to speak!

Pepper and padi (rice grain) on ginger mats for drying
Rh Kesit, Sg Lemanak, Sarawak

Then there is of course a whole pharmacy out there amongst the gingers. Already ‘normal’ ginger boasts a host of medical properties and commercial ginger tea is widely available. However, it is never as good as when prepared with fresh ginger, and the simplest way to make ginger tea is to take a couple of slices of fresh ginger over which you pour hot water. Honey goes very well with ginger and makes its sharp, peculiar aroma in teas, and other preparations mellower. Alternatively you can brew up a coup of Ceylon tea and add a slice of ginger, or you can even put it in your coffee. Here in Borneo people will tell you that ginger tea is good for ‘removing heat from the body’ (see Traditional Medicine Part 1), and expelling wind. In other words, if you drink ginger tea don’t be astonished if you have to pass lots of wind… More beneficial properties of ginger – some proven scientifically, others right from the realm of popular folk medicine – are: treatment of infections, reduce pain from headaches, prevention of the flu and cold, relieve for a sore throat, prevention of motion and morning sickness, treatment of indigestion, soothing of toothaches and much more. Z officinale is also prescribed as an aphrodisiac, that is it makes men horny… Other gingers found in Borneo, like some in the genus Globba, find their application in tinctures and ointments for the relief of muscle and joint pains; and gingers figure even amongst the mystical ingredients that are needed to ward off evil spirits!

Huge leaves of an Etlingera sp at Niah, Sarawak

Etlingera fimbriobracteata flower and leafy shoot (Niah, Swk)

A sought-after ginger here is jerangau merah (Boesenbergia stenophylla), a ginger that works as an antidote in case of food poisonings and stomach disorders, and helps cure hangovers. In Sabah this ginger is called Komburuongoh Sarawak – because it virtually only grows in Sarawak nowadays and even there it is rare and confined to the cool ridges of the interior of the state. Hedychium muluense – described in 1977 from Mulu – is used in Sabah in case of scorpion stings and snake bites, and many of the Etlingera varieties are used for a wide range of illnesses, infections and other aliments.

Amomum roseisquamosum is a rare ginger growing epiphytically in trees – it is a ginger that was only recently discovered and described so far from only one location in Sarawak: Lambir Hills National Park, near Miri. With over 200 species of gingers in about 20 genera in Borneo, and vast tracks of rainforest not yet inventoried, future new discoveries are inevitable. A roseisquamosum is just one good example from Borneo, where endemism is high and one can find plants, even animals that are sometimes restricted to one small area of the entire island. This shows the urge to push for more protection of the rainforest and its incredible flora & fauna for future generations.

Orchid-like flower of an Alpinia sp
Kinabalu National Park


Gingers – general information

Without wanting to go into deeper details and botanical jargon, here some general information: gingers are herbaceous plants even though some species can reach a height of 8 m. They all have a rhizome in common, which is typically an underground stem that produces leaves and roots though in some gingers the rhizome grows along the ground, and some others seem to stand on stilts (eg Hornstedtia reticulate). Typically the leaves are arranged distichously – that is in two opposite rows in one plane and the inflorescence is a cluster of specialised leaves supporting one or more highly specialised flowers that sometimes resemble orchids – and are indeed often mistaken for orchids, especially the larger and more spectacular ginger flowers such as Alpinia hansenii or Hedychium cylindricum. Flowers can be found on or at the tip of the leafy shoot like in many Alpinia and Globba species, or on the ground where they spring directly from the rhizome on leafless shoots (such as many Etlingera sp). In this case the flowers can be far from the leaves. Others have a long flower stem, such as the torch ginger (Etlingera elatior). Because of their sometimes spectacular and brilliantly coloured flowers many gingers are now grown as ornamental plants in tropical gardens; even the cut flower industry uses flowers and various other parts of gingers in floral arrangements: the popular strelitzia and heliconia – birds of paradise flowers etc – are related to gingers too, belonging to the order of Zingiberales!

The fruits of gingers are often fleshy and sometimes open by three slits (eg Hedychium cylindricum) to reveal brightly coloured seeds. Actually, the seeds are black (or brown), but they are covered in fruit flesh (the aril), an arrangement to attract birds and other animals who eat the fruit and thus distribute the seeds.

Not the flowers, but the open fruit pods of a Hedychium sp
Kinabalu National Park

Several ginger species are used in the food industry as spices and condiments, and some species are used in medicine.

Gingers also play an important role in rainforest ecology – not only as food source for many animals – but also as pioneer plants. After landslides, moderate forest fires and in abandoned hill-rice fields gingers can be seen amongst the very first plants that occupy those open sites.

Despite their importance in the flower and food industry, in rainforest ecology and their many uses the knowledge of their basic taxonomy, their distribution and conservation status is still incomplete.


Ginger – Zingiber officinale

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is a spice which is used for cooking and is also consumed whole as a delicacy or medicine. It is the underground stem of the ginger plant, Zingiber officinale.

The ginger plant has a long history of cultivation, having originated in Asia and is grown in India, Southeast Asia, West Africa and the Caribbean. 


The characteristic odour and flavour of ginger root is caused by a mixture of zingerone, shogaols and gingerols, volatile oils that compose about one to three percent of the weight of fresh ginger. In laboratory animals, the gingerols increase the motility of the gastrointestinal tract and have analgesic, sedative, antipyretic and antibacterial properties.

Ginger contains up to three percent of a fragrant essential oil whose main constituents are sesquiterpenoids, with (-)-zingiberene as the main component. Smaller amounts of other sesquiterpenoids (β-sesquiphellandrene, bisabolene and farnesene) and a small monoterpenoid fraction (β-phelladrene, cineol, and citral) have also been identified.

The pungent taste of ginger is due to non-volatile phenylpropanoid-derived compounds, particularly gingerols and shogaols, which form from gingerols when ginger is dried or cooked. Zingerone is also produced from gingerols during this process; this compound is less pungent and has a spicy-sweet aroma. Ginger is also a minor chemical irritant, and because of this was used as a horse suppository by pre-World War I mounted regiments for feaguing.

Ginger has a sialagogue action, stimulating the production of saliva, which makes swallowing easier.

Culinary uses

Young ginger rhizomes are juicy and fleshy with a very mild taste. They are often pickled in vinegar or sherry as a snack or just cooked as an ingredient in many dishes. They can also be stewed in boiling water to make ginger tea, to which honey is often added as a sweetener; sliced orange or lemon fruit may also be added. Mature ginger roots are fibrous and nearly dry. The juice from old ginger roots is extremely potent and is often used as a spice in Indian recipes and Chinese cuisine to flavour dishes such as seafood or mutton and vegetarian recipes. Powdered dry ginger root (ginger powder) is typically used to spice gingerbread and other recipes. Fresh ginger can be substituted for ground ginger at a ratio of 6 parts fresh for 1 part ground, although the flavours of fresh and dried ginger are not exactly interchangeable.

Ginger is also made into candy, is used as a flavouring for cookies, crackers and cake, and is the main flavour in ginger ale—a sweet, carbonated, non-alcoholic beverage, as well as the similar, but spicier ginger beer which is popular in the Caribbean.

Fresh ginger should be peeled before eaten. For storage, the ginger should be wrapped tightly in a towel and placed in a plastic bag, and can be kept for about three weeks in a refrigerator and up to three months in a freezer.

Ginger root, raw - Nutritional value per 100 g (3.5 oz)

Energy 20 kcal  
Carbohydrates 17.77g  
- Sugars 1.7 g  
- Dietary fibre 2 g  
Fat 0.75 g  
Protein 1.82 g  
Thiamine (Vit. B1) 0.025 mg 2%
Riboflavin (Vit. B2) 0.034 mg 2%
Niacin (Vit. B3) 0.75 mg 5%
Pantothenic acid (B5) 0.203 mg 4%
Vitamin B6 0.16 mg 12%
Folate (Vit. B9) 11 μg 3%
Vitamin C 5 mg  8%
Calcium 16 mg 2%
Iron  0.6 mg 5%
Magnesium  43 mg 12%
Phosphorus 34 mg 5%
Potassium 415 mg 9%
Zinc 0.34 mg 3%

Percentages are relative to US recommendations for adults.
Source: USDA Nutrient database



  • Gingers of Sarawak, a pocket guide; Dr Axel Dalberg Poulsen, Natural History Publications (Borneo), 2006
  • Tropical Herbs & Spices of Malaysia & Singapore; Wendy Hutton, Periplus Editions 1998
  • Wikipedia (Z officinale)
  • Various personal interviews with Dusun, Murut and Iban of Sabah and Sarawak

Further Reading:

Special Thanks to Dr Axel Dalberg Poulsen who has kindly taken the time to correct my ginger definitions in the photos in this article.


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