What is Galangal?

If you were to visit a my kitchen, you would most likely meet up with this gnarly-looking root and wonder what it could be. Though it looks a little like ginger, the skin is a different color-more red than brown. And if you were to slice it open, you would find the inside perfectly white (unlike ginger's yellow-tinted flesh). The cook of the house would tell you that the dense, but smooth-feeling root you hold in your hands is nothing other than "Galangal". Also known as Siamese Ginger, this root is an important ingredient in Asian cuisine, and also a spice with an interesting history that includes numerous medicinal properties and applications.

But first, what does galangal taste like? If you were to bite into this tuberous rhizome, you would be very surprised at the slightly sweet, "perfumy" taste and scent of it, not to mention the spiciness factor. While not exactly "hot" like a chili, galangal has a sharp pungency to it that will make you gasp and perhaps cough a little. Galangal can also be dried and powdered. When purchased in this form, it is often referred to as "Laos Powder"; however, as with most herbs, fresh is usually preferable to dried. In Thai cooking, fresh galangal adds flavor and depth to many dishes such as soups and curries as well as many other dishes. Interestingly, galangal is sometimes referred to cook as a "de-fisher", since it is known to help eliminate any unwanted "fishy" smells from shellfish and other seafood dishes.

History of Galangal

Galangal is now grown in most Southeast-Asian countries, but was first harvested for use in cooking and medicine in China and Java. But by the Middle Ages, galangal had traveled extensively, and was already in common use throughout Europe. Referred to as "the spice of life" by St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), galangal was, in fact, one of her favorite remedies. This famous herbalist used galangal to treat everything from deafness and heart disease to indigestion.

During the 13th-14th centuries, galangal was used by the Turkic peoples (who occupied much of present-day Russia) as a tea, and by the Arabs as a stimulant for their horses. It was used extensively throughout the East as a snuff for nasal infections, and in both Europe and Asia as an appetite stimulant and aphrodisiac.

Today, galangal is still in use in Russia, where it is used to make vinegars as well as liqueurs. It also has a thriving market in India, where it is not only valued as a spice but also as a perfume to make deodorants. Presently galangal remains, however, most commonly used in Southeast-Asian countries like Thailand, where the spice is not only a medicine, but has become part of the daily diet-which tells you how healthy Thai cuisine really is!

Health Benefits of Galangal

Galangal is commonly prescribed today by homeopaths, veterinarians, and other health care professionals and natural healers. It has been found effective as a remedy for the following ailments and conditions:
- indigestion and stomach complaints
- seasickness and motion sickness, including nausea
- ulcers and inflammation of the stomach
- rheumatism
- colds, flu, and fevers
- dementia
- bad breath
- diarrhea
- poor blood circulation, especially in hands and feet
- tumors (anti-tumor effect has been observed in mice)
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