What is Galangal?

Greater galangal is native to Java. It is widely used in Indonesia and Malaysia as a food flavouring and spice. Lesser galangal is native to China, growing mainly on the southeast coast. It is also grown in India and the rest of South East Asia. Although barely used in Europe today, both galangals were formerly imported in great quantity, as medicine and spice.

Galangal was known to the ancient Indians, and has been in the West since the Middle Ages. Its stimulant and tonic properties are recognized by the Arabs who ginger up their horses with it, and by the Tartars, who take it in tea. In the East, it is taken powdered as a snuff, and is used in perfumery and in brewing.

Spice Description

The galangals are fascinating ginger-like spices used in South East Asia.

Greater Galangal (laos): Used as a flavouring throughout Indonesia, Malaysia and parts of India. Orangey-brown skin with pale yellow or white interior. The rhizomes are longer than lesser galangal. Available as slices, 3mm (1/8 in) thick or powder.
Bouquet: Gingery and camphorous
Flavour: Pungent but less so than lesser galangal.
Hotness Scale: 5

Lesser Galangal (kencur): Used as a flavouring in Indochina and Indonesia but not in Chinese cooking. The 8 x 2cm (3 x 3/4in) rhizome has a red-brown interior. The texture is fibrous. Available as slices or powder.
Bouquet: Aromatic and gingery
Flavour: Aromatic and pungent, peppery and gingerlike.
Heat Scale: 6

Kaempferia Galangal: Used as a flavouring in South East Asia. Often identified as greater galangal. Red skin and white interior.
Bouquet: Sweet and sickly with pungent undertones.
Flavour: Like Bouquet but much stronger.
Heat Scale: 5

botanical illustration of galangalCooking with Galangal

The use of greater galangal is confined to local Indonesian dishes such as curries. Although known in Europe since the Middle Ages, galangal is now used only in Far Eastern cookery from Indonesia, IndoChina, Malaya, Singapore and Thailand.

Like ginger, galangal is a ‘de-fisher’ and so appears frequently in fish and shellfish recipes often with garlic, ginger, chilli and lemon or tamarind. Laos powder is more important than kencur and, as well as with fish, is used in a wide variety of dishes such as sauces, soups, satays and sambals, chicken, meat and vegetable curries.

Although used in the often searingly hot Indonesian cookery, laos powder enhances dishes such as chicken delicately spiced with fennel and lemon grass and gently cooked in coconut milk. However, these mild dishes are usually accompanied by vegetable or fish sambals fiery with chili. ‘A Cook they hadde with hem for the nones To boille the chiknes with the Marybones and poudre Marchant tart and galyngale’ (Chaucer, 1386)

Preparation and Storage

Use like ginger, powdered, bruised or crushed. One slice of the root is equivalent to half a teaspoon of powder. Generally small quantities are specified in recipes, laos being used in larger amounts than kencur. The powders should be stored in airtight containers and used within a short space of time.

Health Benefits of Galangal

Resembling ginger in its effects, galangal is an aromatic stimulant, carminative and stomachic. It is used against nausea, flatulence, dyspepsia, rheumatism, catarrh and enteritis. It also possesses tonic and antibacterial qualities and is used for these properties in veterinary and homeopathic medicine. In India it is used as a body deodorizer and halitosis remedy. Both galangals have been used in Europe and Asia as an aphrodisiac for centuries. Gerard (1597) says: ‘they conduce to venery, and heate the too cold reines (loins)’.

Plant Description and Cultivation

Greater galangal: a tropical herbaceous plant of the ginger family reaching to about 2m (6 1/2ft). The blade-like leaves are long and wide, 50 x 9cm (18 x 31/2in); the flowers are greenish white with a dark-red veined tip. The fruits are red berries. The rhizomes are orange to brown and ringed at intervals by the yellowish remnants of atrophied leaf bases. Lesser galangal: smaller than the greater as the name implies. The leaves are long and slender, roughly half the dimensions of the greater. The whole plant, rarely more than 1m (3 1/4ft) high, vaguely resembles an iris. The flowers are small, white with red streaks. The rhizomes are reddish brown, about 2cm (3/4in) in diameter. They are more pungent than the greater and are similarly ringed.

Kaempferia galangal: The rhizomes are reddish with a white interior. The plant is similar in appearance to lesser galangal. Galangal is widely cultivated in South East Asia in a similar manner to ginger.

Galangal Substitute

ginger (not as pungent as galangal)

Other names

Galanga, Galengale, Galingale, Garingal Greater: Big Galangal, Galangal Major, Java Galangal, Kaempferia, Siamese Ginger Lesser: Aromatic Ginger, China Root, Chinese Ginger, Colic Root, East Indian Catarrh Root, East Indian Root, Gargaut, India Root, Siamese Ginger.

French: grand galanga
German: Galanga
Italian: galanga
Spanish: galanga
Arabic: khalanjan
Chinese: kaoliang-chiang, ko-liang-kiang
Indian: barakalinjan, kulanjan
Indonesian: laos
Lao: kha
Malay: languas, lenguas
Thai: kha

French: galanga de la Chine, galanga vrai, petit galanga
Chinese: sa leung geung, sha geung fun
Malay: kunchor, zedoary
Sinhalese: ingurupiayati
Thai: krachai

Scientific names

Greater : Languas galangal, syn Alpinia galanga

Lesser: Languas officinarum, syn Alpina officinarum

Kaempferia: Kaempferia galanga, Kaempferia pandurata

Recipes using Galangal

Try Java Chicken, Spicy Chicken Soup with Noodles ..