Galanga – Kah
by Kasma Loha-unchit
Galanga Root (kah): Galanga, called kah in Thai and known variously as "galangal" and "laos root," is an immensely pungent and fiery rhizome related to the common ginger but with a personality distinctly its own. 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 different varieties, one known as "greater galanga" and the other, "lesser galanga". The first, which is larger in size, lighter in color and subtler in aroma, is the kind most used in Thai cooking. The fresh root is fleshy, knobby and very firm, to the point of being woody when it fully matures. When very fresh, its ivory color, with hardly any separation between skin and flesh, and its young pink shoots are reminiscent of the appearance of young ginger. But unlike its better-known cousin, it is much denser and harder with ringlike markings spaced almost evenly apart, a glossy outer sheen, a unique mustard-like flavor and a much sharper bite. Galanga is a heavy root and carries a hefty price tag, anywhere from four dollars to eight dollars per pound, depending on the season and the market. But you won't need much of it to flavor a dish, and some Southeast Asian markets will cut a small piece for you to suit your needs.
Fresh kah is a magical ingredient when it is finely slivered up for hot-and-sour seafood salads and sliced in thin rounds to flavor soups. It helps mask the fishiness of seafoods and the heaviness of red meats, thereby making them taste cleaner, more delicate and more succulent. When you purchase a fresh root, select a smaller and more tender one; the larger roots can be very hard, making slicing and slivering a tedious chore. You will want to sliver the root very finely for salads as it is intensely pungent; in small doses, it adds a hearty spiciness to each bite.
Cultivated in hotter areas of California and Florida, galanga is also imported fresh from countries south of the border and flown in from South Pacific islands. These foreign-grown rhizomes, however, differ somewhat in flavor from the roots grown in the soil of tropical Thailand, which seem to have a wider range of attributes. Imported frozen Thai galanga is readily available in Southeast Asian markets. Although some of its fresh punch is compromised by freezing, it still carries important gradations of flavors lacking in foreign-grown roots, making it my preferred choice for curry pastes with robust characters. Frozen Thai galanga is usually small and has a light reddish brown skin and usually costs much less than the fresh cream-colored roots. But for salads and refreshing herbal soups like dtom yäm, I prefer to use fresh galanga, which is becoming easier to find year-round in the Bay Area. Look for it in Thai and Southeast Asian markets, as well as specialty produce markets.
Galanga is also sold in slices packed in brine in glass jars; rinse first before use. (Beware of jars confusingly labeled as "galanga" or "galingale," which actually contain the slender, finger-shaped "lesser galanga").
Much more widely available are the dried pieces of galanga packaged in small plastic bags; these are an acceptable substitute for soups. Many American Thai restaurants use them more often than not in place of the expensive fresh root in their dtom yäm soup, but for fresh seafood salads, dried pieces are too woody and do not reconstitute with soaking. If you must substitute for fresh galanga in seafood salads, use frozen Thai roots or common ginger, or do without either.
Dried galanga has a pronounced musky and rooty flavor unlike the sharp bite of the fresh root. It makes a fairly good substitute for the fresh and frozen roots in coconut-based soups, such as Dtom Kah, as its strong, earthy flavor blends nicely with the richness of coconut milk. I also like to use the dried pieces in the intensely spicy, northeastern-style minced meat salads called lahb. These salads require roasted kah, and it is much easier to roast the dried pieces than the fresh root. I do not recommend purchasing powdered galanga for any purposes, as most spices lose flavor rapidly after they have been ground. It is better to buy the dried pieces and grind them when needed.
Galanga has many medicinal properties similar to ginger. It is a digestive stimulant and also helps to settle stomach upsets, ease nausea and curb flatulence. Traditional herbal doctors recommend a tonic made of minced and pounded old galanga root, mixed with tamarind water and salt, for women who have just given birth, as a blood purifier and as an aid in the removal of gas build-up in the intestines. At the same time, its mild, natural laxative effect keeps the bowels regular. Galanga's heat makes it a good agent in reducing cramping and numbness, in healing bruises and swelling, in treating respiratory ailments and skin diseases and in removing toxins from the body.
In addition, kah is sometimes classified among the category of herbs we call wahn, which are reputed to have magical powers. This belief coincides with an account I once read about its use in medieval Europe among certain medicine people, who wore the dried root as a protection against evil influences and as an enhancer of virility. Known as "galingale" during that period, it was widely used as an aphrodisiac as well as a spice. Somehow, it disappeared from European culinary and medical scenes, and some historians have surmised that it fell out of vogue, along with other spices, as milder foods became the order of the day in the eighteenth century. Today, as Thai cuisine grows in popularity on that continent, perhaps galingale will regain its favored position.
If you live in a frost-free area, try growing galanga to assure yourself a continual supply of fresh rhizomes. Buy a very fresh rhizome with unbruised pinkish shoots and plant shallowly in moist, well-drained soil. Like ginger, it grows into a lovely tropical plant for the garden, producing sweetly fragrant, white orchid-like flowers atop lush four-foot stems over many weeks in late summer and autumn. It grows very vigorously once established.
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