Above ground, the plant grows about 6 ½ feet (2 metres) tall, with leaves about 18 inches (45 cm) long and 3 ½ inches (9 cm) wide. It has no central stem; the leaves grow straight out of its rhizomes. The plant produces greenish-white flowers, dark red at their tips, that later produce red berries.
It’s the underground rhizome that’s used in cooking. It has orangey-brown skin with rings on it from where the bases of the leaves were. Inside, it is hard and woody, and white or a very pale yellow.
It is grown by farmers for sale.
Greater Galangal is sold fresh, dried whole, dried and thinly sliced or ground. Fresh has a fresher taste. Dried powdered has a spicier taste, almost halfway between ginger and cinnamon, though not really tasting of either. The taste of the dried slices once rehydrated approaches that of the fresh.
When fresh, it looks like a piece of ginger, though it is harder to slice than ginger, and so is usually grated or finely chopped. When fresh, it has to be cooked.
Fresh slices can be bought bottled in brine.
Dried slices are about ⅛ inch (3 mm) thick.
Greater Galangal is used in Indonesia in curries, usually fresh. It is also used in Malaysian, Nonya and Thai food.
Soak dried galangal slices in water first for 30 minutes or until softened, then drain. It is probably best not to try to grind the slices in a blender or food processor; you may not get very far.
When using fresh, wash, then scrape off the woody skin, then chop.
Chop up or pound brined slices before use.
Not ginger. When substitute dried for fresh, use half as much.
1 thin slice of fresh root = ½ teaspoon ground
1 tablespoon = 10 thin slices = .4 oz (10g)
1 cup thin slices = 5 oz (150g)
Greater Galangal is native to south-east Asia, probably Java and / or Malaysia.
It was better-known in the West during the early Middle Ages.
Literature & Lore
“A Cook they hadde with hem for the nones To boille the chiknes with the Marybones and poudre Marchant tart and galyngale.” (Chaucer, 1386)
Greater Galangal is called “laos” in Indonesia; “kha” in Thailand, “lengkuas” in Malaysia.
The scientific name is in honour of Italian botanist Prospero Alpina (1533 to 1617.)
In Medieval English, it was spelt “Galyngale.”