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A Guide To Galangal

28 April 2022

A Guide To Galangal

Discover all there is to know about this warm, earthy spice.

What is galangal?

Galangal root is a spice closely related to ginger and turmeric. It’s a member of the rhizome family, an underground creeping stem that grows horizontally, just below the soil’s surface. To look at, galangal is like ginger root on steroids, a knobbly strange-looking root with light coloured skin and protruding white stems with pink tips. It’s rounder, smoother and paler than its more well-known cousin though, and its flesh is much harder. Galangal is widely used in Thai, Indonesian, Vietnamese and Malaysian cooking. Generally galangal thrives in tropical climates, although you can grow it in more temperate climates as long as it’s shielded from frost. Other names for galangal include Blue Ginger, Thai Ginger and Galingale.

Are there different types of galangal?

There are three types of galangal: lesser galangal, greater galangal and lighter galangal, which differ in size, colour and taste. Lesser galangal is native to southern China and has a more peppery bite and tartness in flavour. Greater galangal has a milder flavour and is commonly found in Indonesia and Malaysia. It’s an essential ingredient in most Thai curries, chopped and pounded to a paste. Lighter galangal is the closest in flavour to ginger, with a stronger taste and aroma. It’s the most common of the three rhizomes too.

Where does galangal come from?

Galangal originates from Indonesia but is now cultivated throughout Asia. In 1000 AD, a German herbalist and mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, called galangal the “spice of life” because of its medicinal properties. She used it/the root to treat bad breath, reduce fevers and improve weak hearts. Galangal was brought to Europe during the ninth century by Arabs, who used the root as traditional medicine and even as tea for horses. Today, many Russians use galangal as the base for their liquors. 

Did you know? Dried galangal root was used during Mediaeval times in Europe for protection against evil spirits.

“And let whoever has heart pain or a weak heart thereupon have a mixture of galangal and wine; the person will be better….Let the person who has a burning fever pulverize galangal and drink it with spring water, and the burning fever will go away…let whoever suffers from bad humors in the back or side mix galangal with wine and drink it…the pain will stop.”

– Hildegard von Bingen, German herbalist and mystic

What does galangal taste like?

Galangal tastes spicy, peppery and slightly citrusy. It also has a piney, somewhat earthy flavour profile with a touch of heat. It smells like a blend of pine needles and black pepper – like a walk through the forest in the rain.

Fresh vs dried galangal: what’s the difference?

Fresh or whole galangal packs a lot more flavour than dried and you can taste more of its peppery notes. Dried galangal comes in slices, chips or ground powder. It’s fine to use too, but for best results, buy fresh if you can. 

Galangal versus ginger: what’s the difference?

Galangal and ginger may come from the same family, but in terms of taste, they’re completely different. Galangal’s flavour profile is citrusy and earthy, while ginger is fresh and spicy, with a hint of sweetness. And unlike ginger, fresh galangal has a hard, woody texture, with a fleshy interior. This makes it tough to cut through, so make sure you have a very sharp knife to hand. On first glance, they may look similar, but you certainly can’t substitute one for the other. If you try, you’ll get a completely different flavour.

What cuisine can galangal be used in?

This peppery spice is one of the most important ingredients in Thai cuisine and is often used in many Malaysian and Indonesian dishes and curries. It’s a popular addition to stir-fries, noodle dishes, soups and sauces for a boost of authentic southeast Asian flavour.

Where to buy galangal

Like many, you may not even have heard of galangal. So where on earth do you buy it? You can find fresh and dried galangal year-round at Asian markets, and you can also find fresh, cut and galangal paste from online retailers, like Amazon. You may also be able to pick some up in your local supermarket. Just make sure it’s firm and free from signs of mould or shrivelling. When shopping for this elusive ingredient you might notice it’s also called Thai ginger and Siamese ginger. Some stores also sell it frozen, which is the best substitute for fresh galangal. 

How to use galangal

Diced or sliced, galangal is a wonderful addition to stir-fries, stew, soups and pasta sauces. It’s great in seafood too, making it taste more fresh, and in soups thin slices are simmered to flavour the broth. Because galangal is quite tough, treat it like a cinnamon stick. Let it infuse in your broth for a few minutes and then discard it. You can eat galangal, but you have to chop it really finely or mince it. It can then be used in salads, salad dressings and dips. In Thai cuisine, galangal is quite often pounded or ground into a paste for curries, stir-fries and soups using a mortar and pestle. And it’s also used in cocktails, such as a Thai Gin Sour, Tom Yum Cocktail and Pattaya Margarita.

A Guide To Galangal

How to store galangal

Wrapped in clingfilm or popped in a paper bag, Galangal can be kept in the fridge for two to three weeks. Galangal can also be wrapped in foil or in a resealable plastic bag and stored in the freezer for up to two months. You should always freeze galangal unpeeled to preserve its flavour.

Substitutes for galangal

The best substitute for fresh galangal is to use frozen or powdered galangal. The next best thing is ginger. But remember, their flavour profiles are different, with galangal being more peppery and ginger more spicy. Turmeric also comes from the ginger family and like galangal has an earthy flavour. Lemongrass can be used as a substitute too, especially when it comes to cooking soups, curries and stir-fries, bringing the same citrusy notes, but milder.

Does galangal have any health benefits?

Galangal wasn’t referred to as “the spice of life” for nothing. It’s been used for centuries in Chinese medicine and is gaining recognition in traditional medicine too. This incredible root has been found to fight and potentially prevent a number of cancers, including leukaemia, pancreatic, colon, gastric, liver and breast cancer. It also helps to reduce inflammation and nausea, increase sperm count, support good brain health, ease stomach pain and prevent stomach ulcers. As for vitamins and minerals, galangal is rich in vitamins A and C, iron and sodium. It’s good for your skin too, with anti-aging properties. And can soothe eczema, burns and fungal infection.

Did you know? Galangal is considered to be both an aphrodisiac and mild hallucinogenic.

Recipes with galangal

Galangal is a staple in Thai cuisine so you’ll find it features heavily in sizzling stir-fries, curries and soups, like Tom Kha Gai. This delicious Thai soup is made from coconut milk, loaded up with prawns and chicken. Try making your own red, green or yellow Thai curry paste using galangal. Nothing beats homemade and you can store them in the fridge in an airtight container for a couple of weeks, or in the freezer for up to two months. Struggling to sleep? Try a glass of galangal tea with honey to drift off naturally.