I encountered galangal for the first time at a morning market in Kuta, Bali, two summers ago. I was participating in a Balinese cooking class, and included in the class was a stroll through the morning market with opportunities to learn about Balinese produce and even buy some tools or food, if we wanted. After showing us different types of Indonesian limes and lime leaves, our instructor walked us over to a merchant selling ginger, turmeric, and galangal, and he let us touch and smell the roots heaped up in his wicker baskets.
Back then, I had no idea that there were other spices like ginger. I didn’t even know that turmeric was a relative of the east Asian root. Most of the people reading and writing on this website probably have experience with ginger, and are familiar with turmeric for its role in Ayurvedic medicine and eastern spirituality. In case you’ve never heard of or tried galangal, though, find your nearest grocery store, organic market, or Asian supermarket and buy a couple of bulbs.
In this article, I list some of the spices’ health benefits, survey the histories of turmeric and galangal, and link to a few sweet and savory recipes using each of the spices.
But what are they?
Turmeric is a pinky-sized root of a plant. The root looks like a tiny sweet potato and tastes like a curry spice mix with no salt and no cumin. The color stains whatever it touches.
Galangal is a larger root, shaped like a bulb and pink/gold/white in color. It looks like a flesh-colored fennel bulb and tastes like mild black pepper.
Why Turmeric and Galangal?
If you’ve ever seen fresh turmeric or fresh galangal, you’ll know they look eerily similar to fresh ginger root. That’s because they’re close cousins of the popular sweet rhizome. Ginger, turmeric, and galangal are all in the Zingibera family, roots that don’t produce seeds but can be propagated by replanting pieces of the vegetable. They all have some variation on the same earthy-yet-spicy notes that we’re familiar with in ginger. There are multiple subspecies within each of these three, and other species within the family, but ginger, turmeric, and galangal are possibly the most common three.
As for why you should use either turmeric or galangal in your cooking, they each provide a host of health benefits:
Turmeric contains curcumin, which creates the bright saffron color and fights cancer. Investigations of communities that consume turmeric regularly have shown fewer instances of certain types of cancer than in communities that rarely or never use the spice. For a more general use, turmeric is anti-inflammatory.
Galangal has an even longer list of epitaphs: anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, carminative (gas relief or prevention), deodorizer, digestive aid, seasickness aid, expectorant (for loosening mucus), aromatic stimulant (think peppermint for seasickness), painkiller, immune booster, and breath freshener. Galangal is our spice of all trades.
The Histories of Turmeric and Galangal
Turmeric and Galangal Origins
The origins of turmeric and galangal, like that of their cousin, ginger, are old enough to be unclear, but without a doubt, the three root spices find their roots in south and/or southeast Asia. Galangal, sometimes called “Indonesian ginger,” is indigenous to the tropical area around Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and China.
Archaeologists have uncovered traces of turmeric around New Delhi that date to as early as 2,500 BCE, and we can track the global spread of the orange root to China in 700 CE, east Africa in 800 CE, west Africa four centuries later, and finally Jamaica in the 18th century common era. Galangal, likewise, spread from its southern origin north to Europe over a thousand years ago (Geoffrey Chaucer even mentions “galyngale” in The Canterbury Tales), and only a few centuries ago, researchers uncovered definitive evidence of the root’s presence in China.
“Turmeric” comes to us in Modern English via Old English variations on tarmaret, possibly from the Latin/French, terra merita, meaning “worthy earth,” or “saffron,” due to its similarity to the yellow thread spice. Its main compound, curcumin, is a derivation of Arabic kurkum, also meaning “saffron.” People all over the world identified the dark, stubby root as a type of saffron, solely due to its color.
“Galangal” has a similarly two-sided etymology: from Arabic we get khalanjan, which may be a variation on Chinese liangtiang, a type of ginger (and galangal is, unsurprisingly, a type of ginger.) The Italians called it alpini galanga or alpini officinarum, after the Italian botanist, Prospero Alpini.
Historical Uses of Turmeric and Galangal
Turmeric, at one point long ago, grew wild somewhere in south or southeast asia, but now it must be cultivated by hand. Based on the intense saffron color that the root produces, we can naturally assume that turmeric has been a key ingredient in saffron-colored dyes as long as it has been used by humans. At times, people would use turmeric as a cheaper substitute for the far more costly saffron in both food and as a natural dye.
We do know for certain, though, that turmeric has featured in Ayurvedic medicine since 500 BCE, if not earlier. Within Ayurvedic practice, turmeric produces fumes to alleviate congestion, contains juice to aid with wounds, bruises, and digestion, and can be made into an antiseptic paste for cuts, burns, and skin conditions.
An interesting addition to the above, in Japan, people drink a small shooter-sized bottle (2-4 ounces) of turmeric juice before consuming alcohol to preempt hangovers. The drink is called Ukon No Chikara (“The Power of Turmeric”) in Japanese.
Galangal features mainly in the tropical Asian countries, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Laos, as well as China. Sometimes called a “de-fisher,” galangal pairs often with fish and the bitter, peppery flavor of the spice cuts the fleshy taste of the meat. Historically, galangal helped fight skin disease, but when the root showed up in medieval European cuisine, it was as an aphrodisiac.
How to Use Turmeric and Galangal in the Kitchen
Cooking with Turmeric and Galangal
I wrote once before about cooking with herbs and spices in the Cooking Without Recipes post. In that article, I explained that dried herbs and ground spices need to be added early and infused into a dish for a long time, while whole spices and fresh herbs should be added last, so they don’t wilt. Ginger, turmeric, and galangal are a little different. They’re not leafy, so they’re not really herbs, but they are wet, like produce, so they also aren’t totally like a spice (think cloves or cardamom.) As a result, the way you treat the roots is different than with things like fresh basil, whole anise stars, fresh rosemary, or cinnamon sticks.
Recipes frequently call for fresh ginger, turmeric, or galangal to be cooked early. The reason for this is that these three are considered aromatics, like carrots, onions, or garlic. When cooking with fresh roots, treat them like an aromatic, not an herb, and when using the ground version, treat it like a ground spice or dried herb. Think of them like bay leaves.
Sweet Recipes with Turmeric and/or Galangal
Linked below are a few sweet recipes using either turmeric and/or galangal. When thinking of substitutes, neither one will really substitute for ginger: ginger is sweet and spicy, and a little lofty, but galangal is more like black pepper, while turmeric has a mild, earthy, plant flavor and a powerful color. They do, however, go well in frostings and buttercream, surprisingly.
- Ginger Turmeric Sugar Cookies
- Nectarine and Ginger Tart Tatin
- Sunshine Smoothie with Coconut, Clementine, and Turmeric
- Turmeric Ginger Tea
- Turmeric Tea Cookies
- Orange Cream Turmeric Cake
Savory Recipes with Turmeric and/or Galangal
Both of these are most common in savory recipes in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and China, so there is no end to the savory uses of turmeric or galangal. To provide a point of reference, I’ve linked a few savory recipes below.
- Mulligatawny Stew
- Fire Cider
- Indonesian Beef Rendang
- Galangal Braised Pork Belly with Trout Roe
- Curried Beef Stew
- Healing Kitchari
Avey, T. (2015, November 23). “Turmeric – The Ancient Healing Spice.” http://toriavey.com/history-kitchen/2015/03/turmeric-history-recipes/
“Galangal.” (2008, May 04). Bon Appetit Magazine. From http://www.bonappetit.com/test-kitchen/ingredients/article/galangal
“History of greater galangal.” (n.d.). Spices Kerala: Directory of Complete Spices of India. http://spiceskerala.com/demo/greater_galangal/history_of_galangal.html
Medicinal Spices Exhibit – UCLA Biomedical Library: History & Special Collections. (2002). From https://unitproj.library.ucla.edu/biomed/spice/index.cfm?displayID=29