Galangal is a spice popular in Asian cooking. It has many common names and is also called galangale, galang and greater galangal. Some people refer to it as Siamese ginger because it is native to Southeast Asia, and others call it laos, after one of the countries where it originated. Galangal is in the ginger family.
Types of Galangal
Greater galangal or Alpinia galangal originated in Laos, other parts of Southeast Asia and India. It is cultivated in Indonesia, the eastern Himilayas and Indonesia. The Chinese name for galangal is liang-tiang which means "mild ginger." The rhizome, or root, looks similar to ginger and is similar in taste. Lesser galangal or Alpinia officinarum is also in the zingiberaceae or ginger family but has its origins in Southern China and is cultivated in Malaysia and Indonesia. Different types of galangal have different flavours and spiciness.
Lesser galangal has a more medicinal flavour than greater galangal and is described as being hotter and having a stronger flavour. Lesser galangal originates in China and is used for medicinal purposes. However, in Indonesia it is used as a spice to flavour food. In the Middle East and Asia, galangal has multiple uses including as an aphrodisiac and a perfume. It's also used in snuffs and cooking. In Germany galangal is used in tea while in Russia it is used to flavour vinegar, as well as alcoholic beverages such as wine and beer.
The word "galangal" refers to the different types of galangal as well as similar spices derived from rhizomes. However, galangal also refers to the tuberous roots of some types of sedge and cypress plants. These were once popular in ancient Egypt and have found a new popularity in Spain where they are called chufa or tiger nuts. The Spanish make a sweet drink from these galangal. However, despite the similarity of their names, they are not alternatives for galangal.
Although ginger and galangal look similar, and many chefs suggest using ginger as a replacement for galangal in a recipe, some cooks do not think this is a good alternative suggestion. Despite the fact that they belong to the same family of plants, the flavours of the two roots are subtly different. Galangal has a flowery taste that some say tastes like ginger infused with cardamom. Others describe it as having a peppery, cinnamon flavour. Those who are familiar with the difference between the flavours will pick this up. Purists can look for dried galangal as a substitute for fresh galangal. It can be found in the spice aisle of Asian supermarkets and should be soaked in water before using.