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Galanga – Kah

Kasma Loha-unchit, April 15th, 2010

A Robust Member of the Ginger Family, Galanga Accents Creamy Thai Coconut Soup with Tangy Spiciness

Galanga root, in the ginger family, is one of the essential ingredients in Thai cooking. Last to awaken from winter’s slumber, the tropical plants in my garden are putting forth vigorous new growth. Shiny new leaves are unfolding from my precious kaffir lime tree and pink new shoots are joyously swelling into thick stems on my tender galanga plant.

Galanga Blossom

From Kasma's Garden

I purchased the galanga ginger from a Southeast Asian market several years ago and planted it in a container in hopes of having a continual supply of roots for my Thai dishes. The single stem grew into a lovely plant so lush and beautiful I had no heart to harvest any of its pungent roots. The white orchidlike flowers, emerging a few at a time from fat buds over a long period in late summer, enchanted me with their sweet fragrance, so the plant stayed untouched in the redwood tub, quickly filling it in a few warm summers.

Galanga Root

Galanga root

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Then came the devastating freeze of the previous winter. When no signs of life showed by late spring last year, I sadly pulled apart the wooden planks of the planter that the energetic roots had pushed through the summer before.  Toward the bottom of the planter, I was surprised to find a few pink shoots, which I happily rescued and replanted –- this time directly into the garden where the rhizomes can be more easily protected from unexpected freezes in future winters. I nursed the young shoots in their new location and by late summer, they had grown into healthy plants. Because the ground gives the vigorous rhizomes unrestricted room for growth, I decided that I could now harvest without guilt a few tender shoots from time to time for my cooking as a means of keeping the plants in check. Besides, harvesting the dense rhizomes is now easier without the obstruction of a planter’s rim.

Frozen Galanga

Package of frozen galanga

Galanga is a robustly pungent member of the ginger family that is also known  as galangal, laos root, and greater galanga (not to be confused with lesser galanga, a very different ginger relative).  Because it is the primary ginger used in Thai cooking, this shiny, cream-colored rhizome is sometimes referred to as Siamese or Thai ginger. Galanga is also preferred to common ginger in many Indonesian dishes and is widely used throughout Southeast Asia.

Denser, firmer and even more knobby than common ginger, galanga is also rounder, marked with concentric rings every half an inch apart and has no skin to be peeled. Its growing tips are tinged pink, much like young ginger, but it tastes nothing like common ginger. Its hotter and sharper bite combines with a tangy spicy flavor which, to some people, is reminiscent of hot mustard. To others, it tastes medicinal and indeed it is. Southeast Asians make an infusion with the roots to alleviate symptoms of gastric disorder, and when spicy foods were in vogue in Europe prior to the eighteenth century, this tropical rhizome, known there as galingale, had the reputation as an aphrodisiac and as a magical root to ward off evil.

Frozen galanga

Frozen galanga

Most people in the Bay Area know galanga more as the brown, woody, barklike pieces they sometimes find in hot-and-sour prawn soup served in Thai restaurants, but back in the mother country, it is thin slices of the fresh, cream-colored rhizomes that refreshingly flavors the soup. In another favorite Thai soup, galanga is the main herbal flavoring, its strong, pungent taste coming through the creamy richness of coconut milk. Try the Seafood Coconut Soup recipe, which is also wonderful with a combination of fresh seafood, such as shrimp, mussels, squid, crab chunks, scallops, and firm-flesh fish for a Thai-style bouillabaisse. For a richer soup, use one part water to one part canned coconut milk, rather than the two to one dilution in the recipe.

Chopping Galanga

Chopping frozen galanga for a Thai dish

Besides soups, galanga’s pungent spiciness makes it a valuable herb for freshening the taste of seafood in spicy seafood salads. Slice the fresh root as thinly as possible, then stack several slices at a time and cut into very fine slivers before tossing with cooked seafood and a limy chilli dressing. Galanga is also an essential ingredient in most Thai curries and is chopped and pounded to a paste with other herbs and spices.

Dried Galanga Package

Package of dried galanga

When buying galanga, select a young rhizome that is as light in color as possible with pinkish shoots and few or no brown spots. Avoid large, fat roots, as these can be very hard and woody, making it almost impossible to cut. Sometimes a piece you get will be tender at the tips and woody further down; save the tender end for salads and use the more fibrous section for soups. Store fresh galanga wrapped with a paper towel inside a plastic bag in the refrigerator; the paper towel absorbs moisture, keeping the surface of the rhizome dry to discourage mold growth. It will keep for two to three weeks.

If you are not able to find fresh galanga, frozen roots imported from Thailand are available in most Southeast Asian markets. These roots may have an orangish brown color, because they are a slightly different variety, but they are the next best thing to fresh.

Dried Galanga

Dried galanga

Galanga is also sold in large slices packed in brine in glass jars; rinse before use. (Beware of jars confusingly labeled “galanga” or “galingale,” which actually contain the slender, finger-shaped “lesser galanga.”) It is most commonly available in dried woody pieces in plastic bags. The dried form is acceptable for soups, but lacks the fresh flavor required for seafood salads.

If you love to garden, root a piece with unblemished pink shoot in loamy garden soil. It grows very vigorously once established and will reward you with a continual supply of fresh galanga root whenever you need it for your cooking, as well as a lovely, four-foot, ornamental garden plant with lush tropical leaves and charming fragrant blossoms.

Check out the following recipes with Galanga:

Also check out:

Galanga and Other Ingredients

Galanga and other ingredients

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, April 2010.

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