• The great •
Greater galangal Alpinia galanga
Galanga or galangale (kah or gah in Thai) is the culinary species widely used throughout the whole of southeast Asia. It is a larger species, growing to a couple of metres in its native habitat, less in temperate climates.
The rhizomes are larger too, up to the size of a clenched fist. These produce buds or shoots with a pinkish tinge which resemble young ginger, but the skin is much tougher with dark, ring-like lines, giving the rhizome a segmented appearance.
Cut into the rhizome and it is dense and woody, like cutting rope, especially if older. Younger rhizomes can be used without peeling.
There are several varieties of galangal. The most common is red galangal, which bears tall panicles of tiny red and white flowers in late summer.
Alpinia officinarum syn Languas officinarum
The name lesser galangal has been applied to A. officinarum and more often Kaempferia galangal.
A. officinarum is a native of China and is used extensively in South China. The rhizomes have a dark reddish-brown skin, a near-white interior, are 3-10cm long, and rarely over 2cm thick. They are stronger in odour and taste than greater galangal.
Lesser galangal’s culinary use is restricted to a few indigenous cuisines, mainly within the Malay peoples in Malaysia and Indonesia. It is essential in the spicy-sweet food of Javanese cuisine, and shines in Balinese dishes, such as the famous Balinese roast duck (bebek betula). In China, especially the Sichuan province, it is referred to as sand ginger or sha jiang and is always used dried.
While greater galangal is superior in flavour, lesser galangal has the higher concentration of galangin (formerly called galangol or alpinol) and its many health benefits. It has been used as a medicinal herb for centuries throughout Asia and Europe in the Middle Ages and has a warm, stimulating effect on digestion, rather like ginger. It has been used as a remedy for nausea (including sea sickness), indigestion, poor circulation, rheumatism and to tone the tissues.
Chinese keys Boesenbergia rotunda
Another species, Chinese keys, is not closely related to galangal but is closer to lesser galangal in taste. It is named for the finger or key-like configuration of the roots. Chinese Keys is used in the famous jungle curries and spicy salads of Northern Thailand. Whether you use it in cooking or not, it is a handsome conservatory plant forming dense clumps of very wide leaves and showy pink orchidlike flowers. It is hardier than true galangal.