What is Galangal and how to use it for cooking

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galangal

Galangal is a staple spice in Thai cooking and other Southeast Asian cuisines. It is often used in Thai recipes, but it also creates some confusion.

So in this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about galangal, including what it is, how to use, choose, store, substitute, and more!

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What is Galangal?

Galangal is a tropical perennial herb, and while many people call it galangal root, the part of the plant that we use for cooking is actually the rhizome.
Rhizome is a type of underground stem, and from it the roots and shoots come out. When you buy galangal, you may see small dots where the roots used to be.

Galangal is called kha in Thai. If you’ve ever eaten Thai curries, you’ve eaten galangal because it’s a key ingredient in Thai curry pastes, such as the green curry paste, as well as in popular Thai soups like tom yum (hot and sour soup) and tom kha gai (chicken and coconut milk soup). Galangal is sometimes called Thai ginger or Siamese ginger.

Ginger vs Galangal

Many people confuse fresh ginger with galangal because they are both aromatic rhizomes with a similar shape. But side by side you can see that galangal is smoother and paler than ginger. It also does not have much skin and does not need to be peeled. And despite what some people suggest, I maintain that ginger is not a good substitute for galangal. Ginger has a hot and spicy taste, while galangal has a cooling, refreshing aroma.

If you still use ginger instead of galangal, the dish will turn out ok and may even taste good. But the flavors won’t be the same. It’s like replacing mint with basil. Will your dish be ruined? No. Does it taste the same? No.

How does Galangal taste?

Galangal has a wonderfully cooling woody scent that is very reminiscent of a lush pine forest. You could say it has a slightly medicinal taste (in a good way) as it is nice and refreshing and reminds me of Vicks!

If you were to chew a piece of galangal, it is not pleasant. It is very chewy, slightly bitter and too pungent to enjoy. So we use galangal only for its aroma and often only for infusion and the pieces are removed before serving. If it is to be consumed, it must be ground into a paste or very finely chopped. Very much like cinnamon sticks!

Different ways to use Galangal

  • Extract . Use a strong sharp knife to cut it into thin pieces, then add them to a simmering broth and let it steep for at least 3-4 minutes, after which you can discard the pieces, or leave them in the soup but tell the guests not to eat them as they are very chewy.
  • Ground into a paste . This is very common in Thai cooking. Galangal is ground/mashed into many Thai curry pastes, but you can also make a general herb paste and put it in a sausage mix or in a wok. Use a mortar and pestle to grind/mash, but be sure to finely chop or thinly slice before grinding so it breaks down faster.
  • Finely chopped. This is less common, but you can finely chop Galangal and then add it to salads, dips, stir-fries…or whatever! For example, you can add finely chopped galangal to a laab. Make sure it’s finely chopped though, as too large pieces will be too chewy and pungent.

Please read about how Galangal is used: Thailand’s signature dish no.1 : Creamy Tom Yum soup

galangal root
Galangal

Different varieties of Galangal

A tip: don’t worry about getting the right kind of galangal. Why? Well, because 99.9% of the time the only one you can buy in Asian grocery stores is the one you want (although some may be mislabeled).
A search among varieties will only lead to confusion.

Here’s my attempt to simplify things: There are several aromatic rhizomes belonging to the ginger family that can be associated with the name galangal (or galanga or galingale), but in cooking there are really only two types you need to care about:

  • The “regular” galangal , which is the herb we’re talking about. This is what people are talking about when they call for “galangal” in their recipes, and this is probably the only one you can buy from the store. For the geeks among us who really want to know, this is technically Alpinia galanga .
  • Finger root , also known as Chinese ginger. In Thai this is called grachai or krachai and sometimes pickled finger root, which you can sometimes find in Asian stores mislabeled as “pickled galingale”. Which adds to the confusion.
    It is occasionally used in Thai cooking, including jungle curry or sour curry.
    Finger roots look like…well…fingers! Its aroma is completely different from galangal. Scientifically this is Boesenbergia rotunda.

Other varieties associated with the name galangal are mostly used in traditional medicine and are not something you can buy in your grocery store, so we won’t cover them here.

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Health Benefits of Galangal

In addition to being a common culinary herb, galangal is considered medicinal in traditional Thai medicine and has been consumed as part of a healthy diet for thousands of years. There is some scientific evidence for its medicinal benefits, but note that these were done in small studies and more research is still needed to confirm their effectiveness in humans.

  • Galangal has been shown to have antifungal properties with some success in treating skin fungus. Many Thai herbs and spices are antifungal and this is probably one reason why curry pastes never seem to mold in the fridge even after many months!
  • Some evidence shows that galangal has antibacterial properties against foodborne disease bacteria such as E. coli. Again, this likely adds to the longevity of food made with curry pastes.
  • There is some evidence that galangal is anti-inflammatory and may help with pain associated with inflammation.
  • In laboratories, extracts from galangal have been shown to be effective against cancer cells, but this has not been done in humans.

Substitute for Galangal

As mentioned earlier, many people claim that you can use ginger as a substitute, but that’s like saying you can use rosemary instead of basil. Sure, you CAN use it, but the flavors are completely different. For me, ginger is not a good substitute for galangal, and unfortunately, nothing else tastes like galangal.

So what to do if you can’t find fresh galangal?
The only solution then, is to find alternative forms. Frozen galangal should be your first choice, but choose frozen slices instead of frozen whole pieces because the whole piece is very difficult to work with.
Let it thaw just enough to take what you need from it; if it thaws completely, it will be mushy.

There is also galangal paste in some specialty stores, which is easy to use as it mixes well with many things and has a good taste. Dried galangal pieces work well enough in soups, it just needs more time to release flavor. Galangal powder exists but it is not a good substitute for fresh because the taste is different, but it is mostly used to add some interesting flavor notes to different things.
So it’s worth experimenting with.

How to Store Galangal

Galangal will keep well in the refrigerator for a few days, but if you don’t have immediate plans to use it, the best way to store galangal is to freeze it. But don’t just put the whole piece in the freezer, because then you’ll get a hard lump that’s only good enough to throw at someone you’re mad at.
How to use:

  • Wash and dry it thoroughly and then cut into thin slices about 3mm thick.
  • Line a tray with baking paper and spread the galangal slices in a single layer and freeze. You want to freeze them in one layer or they will stick together and be difficult to use. If you have a lot of galangal, stack them in layers on the tray with baking paper or plastic wrap in between each layer.
  • Once frozen, move them quickly and put them in a freezer bag. Remove as much air from the bag as possible and freeze. You can store Galangal this way for up to 3 months before they develop frostbite. For longer storage, wrap the galangal in aluminum foil before placing them in the freezer bag. Aluminum foil prevents freezer burn longer than the freezer bag alone.

If you’ve read this far, you know more about galangal than most 🙂

Feel free to try Thailand’s signature dish no. 1 : Creamy Tom Yum soup

References

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