Galanga or galangal is a rhyzome (a mass of roots) in the ginger family, which basically answers the question what is galanga.
More specifically, there are two different types of galanga, greater galangal (alpinia galanga) and lesser galangal (alpinia officinarum). We’ll discuss both lesser and greater galangal but our focus is on lesser galangal, which Hildegard included as one of her primary medicinal plants. Galanga has been used as both a spice and as a medicine since the Middle Ages. Galanga plays a central role in Hildegard’s Medieval Diet.
Origins of Galangal
Originally from Southeast Asia, lesser galangal (alpinia officinarum) has a reddish appearance with roots that resemble long slender fingers. Lesser galangal is native to China and grows in the swampy areas of India. Greater galangal (alpinia galanga), on the other hand, is native to Indonesia, and is slightly larger and thicker than lesser galangal. Both types of galangal are very hearty roots with a consistency that is denser than that of ginger.
Galangal thrives in humid tropical regions with shade and rich soil. It is grown in China, Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. It still grows wild in certain parts of India and in the forests of the southern Himalayas. It is used as an ornamental plant in indigenous areas.
Greater versus Lesser Galangal
Traditionally, in central Europe, galangal has been harvested by way of artificial climates, in greenhouses. The greater galangal stands over 6 feet in height, while the lesser galangal generally grows to a height of just over 3 feet, and is not quite as thick. Generally, the plants are somewhat similar to the iris, and resemble reed plants with separate rungs of flowers and leaves. Both species are perennials with long, narrow, light green and leathery leaves.
Greater galangal has a dark skin with a light to pale reddish meat. Lesser galangal has a darker brown skin and the flesh is reddish; you’ll often find yellowish-white ring-shaped leaf scars on lesser galangal. The flesh of both roots is very dense and hard, with a woody consistency. They both smell and taste warm, sweet and spicy. Fresh galangal has a hint of fruity-spicy aroma, like a fir needle, while the dried version has a sweeter smell, much like cinnamon.
Botany of Galangal
With 49 different genera, biodiversity within the galangal genus is large. The root of lesser galangal (alpina officinarum), which is the part harvested for consumption, contains essential oils, hot substances, and flavonoids. These phytochemical compounds not only produce unique flavors, but are also responsible for the known medicinal properties such as antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial.
Whether the intended use is medicinal or culinary, it’s only the rhizome (rootstock) of both species that gets used. The root is harvested in early fall, and then cleaned and cut into pieces.
Galangal in the Kitchen
Fresh roots can be stored for a few weeks in the refrigerator and are typically peeled and cut into slices. Dried roots are ground into powder or soaked before use in sauces, curries, and rubs. Powdered galangal has a reddish brown color. It tastes sweet and spicy, slightly bitter, not as sharp as ginger, with a hint of cinnamon. Lesser galangal has a more intense taste, and is generally less pleasant for cuisine than greater galangal.
Ultimately, this potent rhizome contains high amounts of flavonoids, terpenes (aromatic properties), tannins, gingerols, sterols, mycrene (essential oil), and azulene. Hildegard of Bingen thought of galangal as possessing large amounts of strength. Clearly, there are many reasons why Hildegard referred to galangal as a versatile “spice of life”.