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What the Heck Do I Do With Galangal?

Galangal is a rhizome in the same family as ginger, which it resembles in appearance and, to some degree, flavor

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What do you do with galangal, courtesy of Flickr user thomaswanhoff

One of my favorite pastimes is wandering through the aisles of a supermarket in another country or an ethnic market closer to home, perusing the interesting packaging and unfamiliar ingredients. What to do with those ingredients is another story, and the inspiration behind our occasional series, “What the Heck Do I Do With That?”

So far we’ve looked at annatto, a Latin American flavoring, and nigella seeds, popular on the Indian subcontinent. This time, it’s off to Southeast Asia and a pungent root called galanga, or galangal.

What is it?

Galangal is a rhizome in the same family as ginger, which it resembles in appearance and, to some degree, flavor. It’s common in the cuisines of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Singapore, and is occasionally used in parts of China and India. It was popular as a culinary and medicinal spice in medieval Europe, where it was known as galingale in English (it rated a mention in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales), but it fell out of fashion there. Today its only European appearances are likely to be in Asian restaurants.

There are two basic types of galangal: greater galangal and lesser galangal. Confusingly, lesser galangal has the more pungent peppery flavor of the two.

Where does it come from?

According to The Glutton’s Glossary, by John Ayto, the origin of the name galangal is the Chinese phrase gao liang jiang, meaning “good ginger from Gaozhou” (a city in Canton now called Maoming). China is also probably where lesser galangal originated; greater galangal is native to Java, in Indonesia.

What does it taste like?

I was able to get my hands only on ground dried greater galangal, which is weaker and generally considered inferior to fresh. The powder had a sweet, tangy and gingery aroma and flavor, with a mildly peppery bite. The fresh root is supposed to be much more pungent.

So, what the heck do I do with it?

Galangal is said to mask fishy flavor, so it is a popular spice to use in seafood dishes, like a Vietnamese braised carp with a sweet-salty galangal sauce. I added a couple of teaspoons of the powdered spice to a Thai-style coconut-curried shrimp dish, similar to tom kha goong (kha is Thai for galangal). Fresh galangal should be grated or very thinly sliced, as it can be a little tough (the younger the root, the more tender). It can be added to Indonesian satay (meat skewers with spicy peanut sauce), Malaysian laksa (seafood and noodles in spicy coconut milk) or samlor kor ko (a Cambodian vegetable soup).

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About Lisa Bramen
Lisa Bramen

Lisa Bramen was a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.com's Food and Think blog. She is based in northern New York and is also an associate editor at Adirondack Life magazine.

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