Galangal is ginger's more citrusy cousin, a rhizome used often in Asian, Southeast Asian, and Indian cooking. It's peppery and spicy with a zesty bite and a hint of pine. While galangal isn't as easy to find as ginger, it's an ingredient worth seeking out and can be sourced dried, powdered, and fresh.
What Is Galangal?
While used as a spice and aromatic, galangal is a rhizome, which is an underground plant stem that sends out shooters to spawn new growth. It's in the Zingiberaceae family (also called the ginger family) and related to the spice ginger. It has a similar appearance to ginger, thin-skinned with tube-like lengths that branch off into nodes. Though ginger and galangal are similar and used in similar ways, galangal has its own nuances. It is used in many countries' cuisines including Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, and Laos.
Varieties of Galangal
There are three varieties of galangal that have been dubbed lesser galangal, greater galangal, and light galangal. Lesser galangal originated in China and has a more peppery bite and tartness than the other rhizomes. Greater galangal is a taller plant and grows in Indonesia, specifically the island of Java, and has a more mild flavor. Light galangal comes from the Eastern Archipelago in southeast India, and this type is closest to true ginger in flavor. Of the three varieties, lesser galangal is the most common and easiest to procure.
Galangal vs. Ginger
It's easy to see why ginger and galangal get confused. Not only do they look almost the same, but galangal is often called Thai or Siamese ginger. While both are rhizomes from the same family, they each offer unique flavors. True ginger is spicy and earthy with a bit of sweetness and moisture interlocked in the fibers. Galangal has more of a piney, citrus-tinged flavor and is denser and drier. Both can be dehydrated and/or powdered, and both need to be peeled when fresh. You will sometimes see recipes call for galangal with ginger offered as a substitution.
Fresh vs. Dried
Fresh galangal is more flavorful overall and the peppery notes really come through. Dried and powdered galangal can be used too, though it loses a lot of the nuances that make this spice handy in the kitchen. Overall, it's best to source fresh galangal whenever possible.
What Does It Taste Like?
Though galangal looks like common ginger, the flavor proves less spicy with more of a pepper backbone. There's also a citrus tinge to the rhizome that plays well with lemongrass and fresh fruits. This lemony side also gives galangal a bit of a cool pine taste, which can come out through its scent as well.
Cooking With Galangal
To cook with galangal, treat it a lot like ginger. Fresh galangal needs to be peeled, which can be done with a spoon or a paring knife. Make sure to mince fresh galangal well or slice into thin pieces since it's a dense food without much moisture. Grating is the best method, and from there it can be added to sauces, marinades, curries, stir-fries, and soups.
Dried, powdered galangal is also available on the market, and it can simply be measured out by the teaspoon. Because galangal is a strong spice, use it sparingly while getting a handle on how peppery it can be. In general, dried galangal is less potent than fresh, so keep that in mind too when cooking with the spice.
Recipes With Galangal
While galangal and ginger aren't exact substitutes for each other, that doesn't mean you couldn't experiment with the spice to see how it changes a dish. Fresh galangal is going to offer more flavor, but dried and powdered galangal is easier to find. Try galangal in one of these recipes, even when ginger is called for.
Ginger is the best substitute for galangal, though start with a three to four ratio ginger to galangal. Use fresh ginger to substitute for fresh galangal, and powdered ginger to substitute for powdered galangal. Adding a bit of lemon juice to the ginger is also helpful when wanting to recreate the citrus nuances of galangal.
Where to Buy Galangal
The best place to buy galangal is from an Asian market, especially if it leans toward Southeast Asian ingredients. It's not a common component in American cooking and often gets overlooked in the spice aisle of major grocery stores. Some smaller specialty shops may carry it in powdered form in bags or spice jars, but rarely fresh.
When shopping for fresh, which is sold by the ounce or pound either loose or wrapped in packaging, look for galangal that looks plump (not dry) with no blemishes or mold. Galangal can also be sourced online and shipped. Aside from fresh, find it sliced and dried, as a powder, and dried in strips.
Keep dried galangal in the pantry in a dark, cool place in an air-tight container. Make sure no moisture gets into dried galangal or it can mold the rhizome. Fresh, unpeeled galangal keeps for a few weeks in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator. If the fresh galangal is peeled, it will last a week or so, but tends to dry out unless it's wrapped well and kept from exposure.
Health Benefits of Galangal
Like ginger, galangal is prized as a health aide and has been used in Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine for hundreds of years. It has been proven to be an effective antimicrobial against staphylococcus aureus, or staph infections, and it also contains many antioxidants.
There has been substantial research on the rhizome's ability to fight cancer cells in various parts of the body. Galangal may also help with male fertility by increasing sperm when the food is eaten daily. Aside from those benefits, galangal also has dietary fiber, iron, and vitamins A and C, as well as some phytochemicals that are known to help stave off bacteria. Since the aromatic and spice tends to be used sparingly, the health benefits can be minimal.
L. Wilson, Spices and Flavoring Crops: Tubers and Roots, Encyclopedia of Food and Health, Academic Press, 2016.
Chien S-T, Shi M-D, Lee Y-C, Te C-C, Shih Y-W. Galangin, a novel dietary flavonoid, attenuates metastatic feature via PKC/ERK signaling pathway in TPA-treated liver cancer HepG2 cells. Cancer Cell Int. 2015;15:15.
Fedder MDK, Jakobsen HB, Giversen I, Christensen LP, Parner ET, Fedder J. An extract of pomegranate fruit and galangal rhizome increases the numbers of motile sperm: a prospective, randomised, controlled, double-blinded trial. PLoS One. 2014;9(9):e108532.