Galangal or galanga rhizome goes by many names as well as scientific names. There is a greater galangal and a lesser galangal. The formal title for the galangal plant used most for cooking is Alpinia officinarum. It looks very much like ginger root and is related to ginger, but there the similarity ends. Galangal is a rhizome, or underground stem. It is sharper and hotter and more like mustard than ginger. It is one thing that gives Thai cooking some of its heat. Another galangal is perhaps used more often as an herbal medicine by the same Asian cultures. This variety looks far different with long fingerlike roots. |
Galangal grows in East and Southeast Asia, and also in the East Himalayas and South India. It is used in most of the Asian cultures and was once commonly found exported to Europe. As there are various kinds of galangal, some countries use one variety and other countries another. China uses a different type of galangal than Thailand, for example. The Polish use galangal to flavor vodka and the Russians still use it to flavor vinegar and some liqueurs. The oil produced from galangal is common in India. A common Southeast Asian use for galangal is making a paste with the root along with shallots, garlic and chiles. This paste is used to flavor seafood or meat curries.
If interested in planting galangal, and you live in a frost free climate, choose a well formed and fresh healthy rhizome, and plant it in well conditioned soil. Allow plenty of room, as once established, galangal gets quite large and grows to about 5 feet tall. The plant has long dark green, spear shaped leaves and white, pink or lavender sweetly scented flowers that strongly resemble irises. It can be grown as an ornamental plant. Once well established, to harvest the rhizome, uproot a section and cut it free.
Galangal root is of harder fiber than ginger and will require a sharp knife to cut. The inside is also much more creamy white than ginger. If using fresh galangal, find a young root, as they toughen with age. Pounding the root helps to release more of its flavors. Its strong flavors blend well with the use of coconut milk, such as in coconut based soups. If using fresh, uncooked root in a hot and sour salad for example, slice the root extremely thinly as it is intensely aromatic and pungent.
As fresh galangal is not available in many places, the alternative is the dried or powdered variety. Dried galangal has a muskier and rootier flavor than the sharp bite of the fresh root. Once ground, it loses flavor easily, as with most ground spices. It is used in some Indian dishes, and sometimes in the spice mixture called Ras el Hanout from East Africa.
Galangal is also used as an herbal medicine much like ginger, for stomach ailments, indigestion and stimulating the release of gastric juices to aid digestion. It is said to be antispasmodic and antibacterial and like ginger, to aid in seasickness.
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