Galangal is an ingredient that is hard to ignore when delving into the Thai cuisine. Though galangal is commonly used all over South East Asia, the abundant usage in Thai cooking has earned it the title of “Siamese” or “Thai ginger”.
If you are not that familiar with galangal, at first glance you might mistake it with ginger. They are similar in shape and size, and when added to a soup, the slices floating around can easily look like ginger. But unless you are eating a new kind of soup inspired by the Thai cuisine, it is most likely not ginger – but galangal. A flavourful ingredient that is well worth getting to know better.
There are two different varieties known as “greater” or “lesser” galangal”. The first, which is larger in size, is the kind most used in Thai cooking.
How does galangal look and taste?
Galangal is a little bigger than ginger. It has a knobby surface with ringlike markings and a shinier, whiter skin than ginger’s soft brown peel. When it is very young and fresh, there is hardly any separation in color between the skin and flesh, both being creamy white. But as it matures the root turns darker and the color of the flesh can range from creamy to yellow with a pinkish tint. If there are any shoots left on the root they will also be pinkish. Galangal is much harder than ginger to the point of being woody, though the center is usually a bit softer and juicier than the firm exterior.
In the picture to the right, you can see galangal at the left and ginger at the right. Below, you can see the difference inside. Ginger is a bit more yellow (left) than the much whiter galangal (right).
Even if a closer look at the outer characteristics reveals a difference between galangal and ginger, the biggest difference lies in their taste. Galangal has a sharp, piney flavor with a strong citrus scent. The taste also has a peppery, spicy kick to it. Ginger is hot too, but somewhat milder, sweeter and juicier.
This afternoon, I went to visit a dear friend of mine, who has galangal in her garden. She showed me how to dig up the roots with a hoe. Unfortunately, the soil was a bit too dry and hard for her to succeed. But in the pictures below, you can just barely see the top of a root. The characteristic flavor is also present in the stem. As you can see, she is trying to sniff it up.
Preparation and storage:
It doesn’t take much work to prepare fresh galangal for cooking. There is no need to peel it. You just wash the skin thoroughly and perhaps scrape it off a bit or cut away any dark spots. Due to its hardness, it can’t easily be grated like ginger, but must be sliced or crushed instead. Cut it into coin-sized slices and pound it lightly in the mortar to help release the flavors.
You can store fresh galangal in a cool dry place for about two weeks. It can dry out easily, making it difficult to cut, so make sure to keep it moist.
Cooking with galangal:
Galangal is mainly used as a tastegiver in soups, or as an ingredient in curry pastes.
The slices do not soften much with cooking and the taste of the root itself isn’t particularly good. It is the wonderful essence of flavor that is released while cooking you are seeking – not eating the fibrous root itself. You can either remove it before serving or just eat around it.
Since living in Thailand gives me abundant access to fresh galangal, it is all I have ever used. But I am fully aware that it can be a bit more challenging to get your hands on galangal outside of Asia. Look for the root at Asian markets, specialty produce stores, or well-stocked supermarkets. If they don’t have any fresh galangal, there is a good chance they might have some frozen. Although some of the pungent flavors are compromised by freezing, it still holds most of the sharp bite of the fresh root.
If you are living off the beaten track, or not much of a shopper, you can also buy galangal online.
Are there any substitutes for galangal?
Perhaps you are wondering if there is anything, that can be used as a substitute…..? It should be quite clear by now, that galangal and ginger are not the same. So don’t substitute with ginger!
Galangal, called kha in Thai, is a rhizome – a plant that sends out shooters to create new roots and plants. This produces a web of underground horizontal stems that makes the plant difficult to eradicate. Ginger is also a rhizome (just like bamboo, turmeric, and lotus…..), but that is about the only common denominator with galangal that I can think of and not enough to qualify them as a substitute! Their flavors are simply too unique and cannot be used interchangeably.
Galangal can also be found dried or as a powder. I am familiar with both, but not a fan of either, as I think too much of the flavor is lost, and they don’t provide a taste similar enough to fresh. If using dried galangal, soak up the slices in warm water for about 20 – 30 min.’s and then use it like you would use the fresh version. If using powder, 1 1/2 tsp is equivalent to 1 tbsp chopped fresh galangal.
If you can’t get your hands on galangal – fresh or frozen – I would suggest trying to add some extra lemongrass or kaffir lime leaves to make up for the lack of the root, or turn to using commercial pastes. They pack all of the flavors needed to achieve a good result. Just make sure to use those with the least amount of salt.
You might get the impression, that I am trying to make things difficult by saying “there is no substitute”. All I am doing really is letting you know, what will give the best and most authentic result when cooking Thai food.