Photo credit: PhotoAlto/Isabelle Rozenbaum
Galangal, the fragrant ingredient popular in cuisines across Asia, tends to get lumped in with ginger. It makes sense: They’re closely related to one another (galangal is sometimes called “blue ginger”), both are rhizomes (knobby, underground stems that sprout roots and shoots), and both have long been thought to have medicinal properties.
Trouble is, they’re wildly different.
"Its [purpose] is actually the opposite of ginger," explained Malaysian cookbook author Christina Arokiasamy. Though galangal and ginger share some similarities—a pungent umami flavor and slight tang—galangal is mild where ginger is spicy. “The purpose of galangal is to perfume the food and bring delicateness to the food,” Arokiasamy said. “If you add ginger, everyone will know you added ginger. But galangal will do the same job without taking that loud stand.”
Galangal’s flavor is like a muted version of ginger’s, she continued, but it’s accompanied by a rich aroma that recalls roses, lime, and honey. Like ginger, galangal contains enzymes that help tenderize meat, which is why it’s a popular addition to marinades.
The ingredient can readily be found in Asian markets, though Arokiasamy lamented that galangal sold in the United States tends to be on the mature side. Young galangal is easy to slice, laden with fragrant oils, and colored in pale shades of pink and gold. But as the plant ages, galangal turns a dull beige and becomes more fibrous, making it difficult to slice. Older galangal also loses much of its prized oils, so the home cook must buy twice as much for the same effect. And if it’s black? Toss the thing out.
Once you’ve managed to procure some, Arokiasamy suggests slipping slices of it straight into a hot oiled pan before immediately starting a curry, or pureeing them with some water for use in a marinade or sauce. You can even plunk a tablespoon into a jar of tomato sauce; the galangal tones down the sauce’s acidity without distracting from its flavor.
But perhaps the most famous Mayalsian specialty made with galangal is beef rendang, a tender dish of beef braised in coconut milk. It calls for a spice paste made with galangal, shallots, lemongrass, and garlic, which Arokiasamy said helps create a “gorgeous, deep golden concentrated taste.”
Preparing beef rendang is no walk in the park—Arokiasamy’s recipe takes more then three hours to complete—but it’s an excellent (and delicious) way to showcase galangal’s showstopping strengths.
Courtesy of Christina Arokiasamy
2 tablespoons peanut or canola oil
1 (3–inch) cinnamon stick
2 star anise
3 pounds beef chuck, cut into 1 inch cubes across the grain
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
1 tablespoon chili or cayenne powder
1 teaspoon cumin powder
2 ½ cups coconut milk
Salt to taste
Steamed rice to serve
3-inch piece of unpeeled galangal, thinly sliced
6 whole shallots, peeled and quartered
4 tablespoons chopped lemongrass
6 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole
1. Prepare the spice paste by placing the galangal, shallots, lemongrass and garlic in the food processor together with a 1/2 cup of water. Blend until the mixture becomes a smooth paste, slowly adding more water if necessary. Set aside.
2. Place a large Dutch oven or large pot over medium heat. Heat oil, then fry cinnamon, cloves and star anise for 1 minute until fragrant. Add the meat, spice paste, turmeric, chili or cayenne powder, cumin, and enough coconut milk to completely cover the meat. Mix ingredients until well combined.
3. Cook uncovered on medium heat. Let the ingredients bubble gently for 90 minutes to 2 1/2 hours, stirring from time to time. The coconut milk will become thick and much reduced. When meat is tender and oils have begin to pool at the top of the dish, salt to taste. Serve warm with steamed rice.