Know Your Spices: Galangal

Galangal is a warm, earthy spice with citrusy undertones used across many Asian cuisines. It belongs to the same family as ginger but is unique in flavor and texture.

Whole galangal, dehydrated, and powdered galangal

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Galangal is a spice in the Zingiberaceae (ginger) family, which also includes ginger and turmeric. It’s a rhizome, an underground plant stem that expels roots and shoots from the plant's nodes. There are several different varieties of galangal, each with slightly different flavors and uses.

Galangal holds a special place in many Asian cuisines, including Cambodian, Indian, Chinese, Thai, Indonesian, and Vietnamese foods. Popular applications of the ingredient include tom yum and tom kha gai, soups consumed in Thailand and Laos, and Soto ayam, a traditional Indonesian chicken soup. Another common way to cook with the ingredient is to steep galangal in water for tea.

Galangal

Origin: Part of the Zingiberaceae (ginger) family, which also includes ginger and turmeric

Commonly found in: Cambodian, Indian, Chinese, Thai, Indonesian, and Vietnamese cuisines

Varieties: Greater galangal, native to Indonesia, and lesser galangal, native to Southern China. Can be found in fresh or dehydrated forms.

Fresh, dried, and powdered galangal spice on a blue plate

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Galangal vs. Ginger

Despite belonging to the same family, there are significant differences in appearance, flavor, and texture between galangal and ginger. Galangal root, when young, is generally smoother and paler than ginger. Though galangal has a sharp taste, it is more citrusy, pine-like, and earthy, and some varieties have an almost minty, camphor-like scent and flavor.

Ginger, on the other hand, is peppery with spicier notes.

Galangal feels hard, woody, and fibrous, so cooks often discard it from dishes before serving.

Fresh and dehydrated galangal on a blue plate

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Varieties of Galangal

There are two main varieties of galangal: greater and lesser galangal.

Greater galangal, native to Indonesia, is more commonly added to Thai soups and curries, with a peppery, pine flavor. Lesser galangal, native to Southern China, is used in herbal medicines in China and India and arguably stronger (and more medicinal) than the greater variety.

Greater galangal, when young, has a pale appearance with pink nubs. Lesser galangal is darker in color with orange undertones.

Powdered galangal

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Whole vs. Ground Galangal

Galangal comes in both fresh and dehydrated forms. Dehydrated or dried galangal can come as slices, chips, or ground powder. You may even be able to find galangal paste in certain specialty Asian grocery stores.

If a recipe calls for fresh galangal, you can substitute one teaspoon of dried galangal for 1-inch of the fresh version. Because there are different varieties and concentrations of the ground version, you may need to adjust the ratio up or down depending on the type you have at home.

Whole and dehydrated galangal

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Where to Buy Galangal

You can find fresh galangal (or dehydrated versions) at many specialty Asian grocery stores or Amazon. Kalustyan's is a popular spice store in New York City that offers shipping to the US and Canada.

When purchasing fresh galangal, keep in mind the age of the root. Younger roots are often paler in color and feel softer, while older roots are hardier (and will be more challenging to slice through). Older roots provide a different flavor than the younger ones, and a recipe may call for one or the other depending on the desired taste. Some stores do sell frozen galangal, recommended as the best substitute for the fresh form.

How to Store Galangal

Store fresh galangal in a loosely sealed plastic bag lined with a paper towel and place it in the refrigerator for up to three weeks. Alternatively, slice the root into thin pieces and freeze in a sealed plastic bag or airtight container for approximately two months.

Dehydrated or dried galangal should be stored in a cool, dry place. Ground galangal powder, kept in an airtight container, lasts between six months to one year in your pantry.

Dehydrated galangal on a blue plate

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Galangal Substitutes

Unfortunately, there is no perfect substitute for galangal. Ginger is spicier and lacks the citrus element, and most Southeast Asian chefs would argue that there truly is no substitute for the spice. If you'd like to use some ginger instead of galangal, you can, but do note that the flavor will be quite different.

The best substitute for fresh galangal is to use frozen, dehydrated, or powdered galangal.

Do note that powdered galangal is not recommended as a substitute for the fresh kind in soups, as it can create a muddy, undesirable texture. Instead, use the powdered form in curries or baked goods.

How to Prep and Cook with Galangal

There are a few different ways to prep galangal for cooking, as recommended by Pailin Chongchitnant of Hot Thai Kitchen: 

  1. Thinly slice the root and steep in liquid for soups. No peeling is required because the slices are too firm and woody to consume, so they are discarded before serving.
  2. Finely mince galangal to add to a salad or salad dressing; a finer mince is edible.
  3. Grind galangal by itself or with herbs and spices to make a paste for a curry.