Galangal is a pungent and fiery rhizome related to the common ginger but with a distinct personality of its own. Compared to the common ginger, Galangal is larger in size, harder in texture (to the point of being woody when fully mature), ivory in colour and subtler in aroma, almost floral. Its abundant usage in Thai cooking, almost to the exclusion of ginger, has earned it the title of Siamese or Thai ginger. In short, it is to Thai cooking what common ginger is to Chinese cooking.
There are two types of galangal: Greater Galangal, which is native to Indonesia; and Lesser Galangal, which mostly grows in southeast China and India. The difference between the two varieties is the size and flavour. Greater Galangal plant can grow to 2 m in size with long, wide leaves. It has a pine-like aroma, slightly pungent with a lemony taste. Lesser Galangal, as the name implies, is smaller and reaches no more than 1 m with slender leaves. It is more aromatic with hints of eucalyptus and also more pungent with a peppery flavour. Galangal is frequently combined with garlic, ginger, chili, kaffir lime, lemon, lemongrass, shallots, and/or tamarind to make spice pastes for curries, satays and soups. Its heat marries well with coconut milk, which helps to tone it down.
Galangal has many medicinal properties similar to ginger, and both Greater and Lesser Galangals have been used in medicinal applications. Galangal is a digestive stimulant, carminative that helps to ease nausea and curb flatulence, and contains tonic and antibacterial properties that are much sought after in Ayurvedic medicine. Herbalists recommend a tonic made of pounded old galangal, tamarind water and salt as a blood purifier and carminative.
Galangal can be bought fresh or dried. When choosing a fresh root, select a smaller and more tender one as the larger roots can be hard and fibrous, making slicing and slivering a tedious chore. Silvered galangal can give a hearty kick to salads, in small doses. Stored fresh galangal wrapped in paper in a cool dry place, such as in the refrigerator, for about two weeks. Dried galangal can be ground into powder, peeled, or shredded. Store dried galangal in an airtight container. To substitute dried galangal for fresh, use one teaspoon of powder for ½-inch fresh chopped galangal. Note that dried galangal has a musky and rooty flavour, unlike the sharp bite of the fresh root. Ground galangal is sometimes used in Middle Eastern and Moroccan spice blends.
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