My big­gest hot­house has a strip of lovely rich soil to grow tropical pa­payas, sev­eral Thai herbs and spices, in­clud­ing galan­gal.

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Rus­sell Fran­sham on galan­gal

Greater galan­gal, Alpinia galanga, is called kha in Thai­land and is the gin­ger which dis­tin­guishes Thai food from other re­gional cuisines. Its un­mis­tak­able sweet, pine resin pun­gency gives the fa­mil­iar gus­ta­tory zing to tom yum soups and many other Thai favourites. Just scratch the skin of a stem or rhi­zome and you re­lease a cas­cade of mouth­wa­ter­ing smells.

The dried or frozen rhi­zomes which are usually sold in spe­cialty shops here are a poor sub­sti­tute in­deed for freshly cut kha. The young shoots are sweeter, less pun­gent and more tender than ma­ture rhi­zomes, whose taste is in­tense and far more com­plex.

Gen­er­ally the rhi­zome is chopped into chunks then bruised with a mal­let or the back of a cleaver to re­lease the flavour dur­ing cook­ing. Then once the dish is served, you place these pieces to the side of the plate as they are usually too fi­brous to chew. I some­times grate the youngest tender shoots or slice them very thinly so they are ed­i­ble when cooked.

Greater galan­gal is a slen­der, glossy leafed gin­ger about 80cm high.

It can reach 1.5m in a hot­house. It is ev­er­green, un­like most other ed­i­ble gingers. It needs warm con­di­tions all year and does best in a hot­house. It also needs well-drained, fri­able, com­posty soil with steady mois­ture and can be har­vested at any time of year.

It is never going to be a pest like the no­to­ri­ous kahili gin­ger that swarms across North­land‘s hills in some ar­eas. They are only very re­motely re­lated to each other in much the same way that can­nas and ba­nanas are re­lated to each other.

In late sum­mer, galan­gal pro­duces tall flower spikes com­pris­ing hun­dreds of tiny creamy flow­ers with red veins but no per­fume.

Rather than dig­ging the plant up, I just scratch away the soil and cut off enough for the recipe so the rest of the plant con­tin­ues to grow undis­turbed. The rhi­zomes are about fin­ger-thick­ness and I use se­ca­teurs to re­move a meal-sized piece.

There are two dif­fer­ent strains of kha in New Zealand:

red galan­gal which has pink rhi­zomes and is more cold hardy and the white rhi­zome form, which is sweeter but even less hardy to cold.

For some years, one or two un­scrupu­lous sell­ers on Trade Me have sold what they call galan­gal with a mys­ti­cal-sound­ing blurb about its flavour and uses but what they are sell­ing in this case is actually Hedy­chium coro­nar­ium, the com­mon or­na­men­tal white-flow­ered but­ter­fly gin­ger from the Hi­malayas, which tastes ghastly and is not galan­gal. This or­na­men­tal gin­ger has rather beau­ti­ful, per­fumed white flow­ers through au­tumn and grows vig­or­ously out­doors even in the South Is­land.

Galan­gal will only grow out­doors very slowly, in a very warm spot and it spends much of the year look­ing brown and sad.

This is mainly be­cause our win­ters are wet and the soil sim­ply gets too cold.

If you don’t have a hot­house, it will grow bet­ter in a bucket-sized dark pot so the sun warms the roots and it can be taken in­doors over win­ter to keep the soil drier and warmer. Galan­gal re­ally needs to be kept above 15°C all year round, even at night.

Even in my big­gest hot­house which is un­heated, the clumps of kha show a lot of brown­ing from the colder nights through win­ter. But by Oc­to­ber, a flush of new shoots emerges as the soil warms, and the clump re­news it­self through sum­mer and au­tumn.

Al­most all the in­gre­di­ents used in traditional Thai food are grown in New Zealand in home gar­dens, but kha plants are sel­dom seen in nurs­eries. They are usually passed from one fam­ily to an­other down the gen­er­a­tions.

But if a few brave and ad­ven­tur­ous grow­ers wanted to start grow­ing these com­mer­cially, I’m sure there would be a very ap­pre­cia­tive mar­ket for these fresh in­gre­di­ents, espe­cially in the largest cities.

There has been an ex­cit­ing new de­vel­op­ment in North­land re­cently.

An en­thu­si­as­tic group of tropical food grow­ers have got to­gether to form the Tropical Fruit Grow­ers of New Zealand (TFGNZ) and these folk are al­ready busy ex­plor­ing many new warm cli­mate crops that could be grown com­mer­cially in the north of New Zealand.

Tri­als are al­ready well un­der way with ba­nanas, cof­fee, pineap­ples and prickly pear. There will no doubt be more tropical can­di­dates to be added to this list, in­clud­ing greater galan­gal.

Com­mer­cially grown Asian spices and herbs such as galan­gal, gin­ger and turmeric could eas­ily be an­other page in the story of North­land’s hor­ti­cul­tural econ­omy.

I see ex­cit­ing times ahead for the North with TFGNZ.

Galan­gal red and white cul­ti­vars.

Galan­gal can some­times be found in farm­ers’ mar­kets.

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