What is Galangal? Your Guide to the Spice of Life

What is Galanga

What is Galangal? Galanga or galangal is a plant in the ginger family (Zingiber officinale). The galangal plant has a long history of medicinal and culinary uses. The entire plant contains many beneficial properties. But the most commonly used portion is the rhyzome – or mass of roots.

We will answer the question of “what is galangal?” by exploring everything you need to know about the amazing galangal plant. Furthermore, we will cover the the traditional uses of galanga, the health benefits of galanga, and how you can take galanga to improve your health. So keep reading to learn all about this versatile healing plant!

Galangal: A Spice and A Cure

Galangal has been used as a culinary spice and healing plant for a very long time. Galanga or galangal is native to southeast Asia, where it has been an important part of many Asian cultures. Traditionally, galanga is used as a flavoring spice in the cuisines of Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and China.

Galanga has a similar taste and aroma to that of Ginger root. The spicy, peppery, and aromatic qualities of galangal are a signature flavor in many traditional dishes including curries, soups, and rice preparations.

kaempferia galanga

Kaempferia Galanga, the root is used as a spice in Asia

Galangal thrives in humid tropical regions with shade and rich soil. It is grown in China, Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam where the medicinal use of galanga is widespread. Galanga still grows wild in parts of India and in the southern Himalayas. It is also used as an ornamental plant in indigenous areas throughout Asia.

Greater Galangal versus Lesser Galangal

There are two types of galanga that are the most commonly used in cooking and as a healing plant: greater galangal (alpinia galanga) and lesser galangal (alpinia officinarum).

Lesser galanga played a central role in Hildegard’s Medieval Diet. As such, our focus is on lesser galangal, which Hildegard included as one of her primary medicinal plants.

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 also grows in parts of India.

what is galangal

Lesser Galangal

Greater galangal (alpinia galanga), on the other hand, is native to Indonesia. It is also slightly larger and thicker than lesser galangal. Both types of galangal are noticeably more dense than ginger.

The greater galangal stands over 6 feet in height. Whereas 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 in appearance 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. On lesser galanga, you’ll often find yellowish-white ring-shaped leaf scars.

galangal galangal alpinia

Alpinia Galanga

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. It is also why there is often some confusion around what is actually galanga.

The word galangal, or its variant galanga, can refer in common usage to the aromatic rhizome of any of four plant species in the Zingiberaceae (ginger) family, namely:

  • Alpinia galanga, or greater galangal
  • Alpinia officinarum, or lesser galangal
  • Boesenbergia rotunda, also called Chinese ginger or fingerroot
  • Kaempferia galanga, also called kencur, black galangal or sand ginger

In general, galanga or galangal is in reference to lesser galangal, because it is the part most commonly harvested for food. This galanga is what you taste in Thai food. It is also densely packed with essential oils, bitter substances, and flavonoids, which is what makes it such a valuable medicinal plant.

Galanga The Miracle Root

Along with ginger, the medicinal use of galangal eventually spread to Europe through the spice trade routes with Asia. In modern times, however, ginger has taken over and galanga has become relatively obscure in western markets.

But it was not always this way. There were long periods of time when galanga served an important role in Europe. Particularly, during the middle ages.

The practice of monastic medicine used galanga to treat a variety of ailments. The prominent Benedictine abbess and healer Hildegard of Bingen held galanga in high esteem for its healing properties. If you asked Hidlegard, “what is galanga?”, she might have told you, “its the miracle root.”

In fact, galangal is featured prominently throughout Hildegard’s writings, namely her Causea et Curae, where she documented much of her work on Hildegard Medicine.

Galanga: The Spice of Life

Hildegard described galangal in Causea et Curae as a preventative herb for several conditions related to her notion of the balance of bodily juices, including bad breath. She also recommended her galangal wine remedy to treat moderate fevers, stomach and intestinal disorders, and to strengthen a weakened heart.

what is galanga

What is Galangal? More than just a Plant

Over 800 years ago, Hildegard of Bingen recognized the benefits of galangal. She believed that galangal possessed large amounts of strength. Together with Spanish chamomile (or akarkara), which she referred to as bertram, thyme, and hyssop, galangal ranks among Hildegard’s most famous healing spices.

Her affection for galangal as a healing plant was so profound that she is often credited with calling galangal “the spice of life.”

“And let whoever has heart pain or a weak heart thereupon have a mixture of galangal and wine; the person will be better….Let the person who has a burning fever pulverize galangal and drink it with spring water, and the burning fever will go away…let whoever suffers from bad humors in the back or side mix galangal with wine and drink it…the pain will stop.”

– Hildegard von Bingen

Medicinal Research on Galangal

The use of galanga in western healing traditions continued on through monastic medicine to become part of Traditional German Herbal Medicine, the modern practice and research area of traditional folk and natural medicine.

The healing effects of galangal are extensive. In the case of both ginger and galangal, the root – or rhizome, is what is used in both culinary and medicinal preparations. The entire galangal plant, however, offers amazing potential for medicinal uses.

In fact, recent research on galanga has found significant antimicrobial and antioxidant properties contained in the galanga plant flowers.

Modern Medical Community

Modern medical research continues to explore the numerous healing properties of galangal. In addition, Germany’s Commission E, the governmental scientific body on herbal medicine, has classified galangal as medically relevant for cramping, as an antibacterial, and as an anti-cancerous agent.

The celebrated Houston heart physician, Dr. Michael DeBakey relied on galangal in the twilight of his life to help strengthen his heart. The renowned practitioner of Hildegard Medicine, Dr. Wighard Strehlow. treated Dr. DeBakey with galangal with great success.

Health Benefits of Galangal

What is galangal? A bounty of natural medicine.

Galangal and ginger are closely related, so it is no surprise that the health benefits of Galangal are very similar to the health benefits of ginger. There are numerous natural active compounds in galanga that demonstrate evidence or potential as medicinal substances.

The appealing aroma and health benefits of galanga are due to the same active ingredients. The highest concentrations of these active plant compounds are found in the roots (rhizome).

galanga galangal health benefits

Galanga has various health benefits

Active organic compounds found in the galangal plant include: flavonoids, tannins, anti-oxidants, and essential oils. These substances work separately and combined to produce a wide variety of effects within the human body.

Specifically, compounds of galangol, galangin, gingerol, camphor, and eugenol have been the most well-studied for their positive affects.

Flavonoids and tannins are typically what make foods taste bitter. Together with other essential oils, these bitter substances are why galangal is such a powerful anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory plant. The association of bitterness with healing is also part of why Hildegard actively promoted the value of bitter flavors in foods.

While researchers continue to discover new potential for the medicinal uses of galangal, here are the known healing properties of galanga:

  • Anti-oxidant
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Anti-bacterial
  • Anti-viral
  • Anti-fungal (topical)
  • Anti-hypertensive (lowers blood pressure)
  • Anti-cancer, including leukemia, liver, gastric, colon, pancreatic, and breast cancer
  • Pain reliever
  • Pro-fertility (increased sperm-count)

Galanga Medicinal Uses

You can take advantage of the natural healing properties of galanga for many different health benefits and remedies. There are almost as many culinary uses of galanga as there are medicinal. We will get to galanga in the kitchen in a minute.

First, here are some ways that galanga can treat illnesses and ailments – or just to help you become more healthy overall.

Health Benefits of Galangal

Galangal has various heath benefits and uses in the kitchen. Try to combine it with lemon grass

Common medicinal uses of galanga include treatment of the following conditions:

  • Arthritis, Rheumatism, joint and muscle aches and sprains
  • Nausea, motion sickness, and morning sickness
  • Digestive distress including: gas, diarrhea, and upset stomach
  • Respiratory ailments including: asthma, bronchitis, cough and sore throat
  • High Blood Sugar: to reduce blood sugar levels
  • Topical treatment as anti-fungal
  • Breath Freshener to treat chronic halitosis
  • Fertility treatment to increase sperm count and libido
  • Immune health as an anti-oxidant and relief from common cold
  • High cholesterol to reduce cholesterol
  • Exhaustion, fatigue, and weakness
  • Appetite stimulation
  • Heart health including: lower blood pressure and improved circulation

The essential oils of galanga are also packed with healing potential. Research on galangal esssential oil and extracts has been found a wide range of pharmacological and biological activities.

Galangal is not recommended for pregnant women because it has a menstrual effect. In rare cases, galangal can come to stomach pressure and stomach aches after an overdose of galangal (over 2 g daily).

How to Use Galangal

what is galanga

Dried Lesser Galangal

While galangal can be used internally and externally, the health benefits of galangal are achieved by eating galangal. The most common forms of galanga are: raw galangal root, dried galanga root, and galangal powder.

You can store fresh galanga roots for a few weeks in the refrigerator. To prepare fresh galanga, you simply wash, peel, and then cut into slices. You can use sliced or minced fresh galanga in soups, stir-fry, curries, salads, and in tea.

galanga root

Galanga Root

Galangal powder is made from the dried roots, which are then ground into powder. You can use galangal powder as you would minced fresh galangal in sauces, curries, soups, and rubs. Or you can add small amounts of galangal powder into dry ingredients in baking for some added spice.

Powdered galangal has a reddish brown color. It tastes sweet, spicy, and slightly bitter. It is not as sharp as ginger, and can have a hint of cinnamon.

You can also use raw galangal root to make salves, tinctures, galangal tea, or Hildegard’s galangal wine. Find our recipes for Hildegard’s galangal wine and how to make galangal tea below.

What is Galangal? Delicious!

Galangal root benefits

Sliced Greater Galangal

Since galangal root is a sturdy and robust plant that can last a long time in your pantry or refrigerator, the easiest and most common way to realize the health benefits of galangal is to simply include it as a reliable kitchen spice. Hildegard of Bingen recommended using galangal throughout the day in dishes such as soups, vegetable stews, salads, and applesauce.

Galanga is also quite powerful. So you don’t need to use much at any one time. A few roots will last you quite a while. The hardest part of using galangal for cooking is finding fresh galangal.

Galangal Tea and Galangal Tincture Recipes

Hildegard von Bingen recommended galangal to strengthen the heart, improve digestion, and relieve bad breath. In her Causae et Curae , Hildegard’s first entry on galangal describes a wine mixture used to moderate fevers, balance bodily humours, and strengthen a weakened heart. 

Galangal health benefits Tea recipe

Galangal Tea is easy to prepare.

We have included three recipes for preparing galangal drinks and how to prepare a galangal tincture. Also, take a look at our post on ginger root health benefits because you can use galangal interchangeably with ginger. Ginger is also much easier to find!

Galangal Tea Recipe

The Galangal tea can also be drunk regardless of discomfort.

Galangal tea recipe

We like to add some lemon grass for fresh flavor

Ingredients:

  • Fresh galangal root, peeled and sliced or minced 
  • 400 ml (13 oz) of water

Directions:

Galangal tea health benefits

Galangal tea is easy to prepare

  • Combine water and galangal in saucepan
  • Bring to a boil
  • Reduce heat and simmer for up to 30 minutes
  • Separate or strain galangal root
Galangal recipes

Galangal Tea

Serve warm as you would tea. 

Galangal Tincture

According to Hildegard, this alcohol extract of the galangal root strengthens the stomach lining and can improve appetite and digestive problems.

Ingredients:

• Use 1 part galangal root to 5 parts alcohol, example:

  • 10 g galangal root (cut or coarsely pulverized)

• 50 g 40% (80 proof) grain alcohol (e.g. vodka or similar)

Directions:

  • Combine galangal root and alcohol into clean wide-neck glass jar
  • Seal the glass container
  • Label and date the bottle
  • Store in cool, dark place for 3 weeks, gently shake periodically.
  • Pass through a fine sieve and transfer to drip bottle.

Application:

  • Take 15 drops of galangal root tincture along with water up to 3 times a day – preferably 15 minutes before meals.

*Keep out of the reach of children

Galangal Wine Remedy Recipe

galanga wine

Hildegard of Bingen held galangal or galanga in high esteem as a healthy and healing plant. Today, you’ll find that most practitioners of Hildegard of Bingen medicine continue to revere galangal and its beneficial health effects. Modern medical research on galangal is also continuing to confirm the healing powers of galangal as well as identify new potential. In the meantime, we recommend trying Hildegard’s galangal wine.

Galangal Wine for Preventative Health

Hildegard also recommended taking galangal with wine, which we refer to as galangal wine. Galangal wine is similar to Hildegard’s Parsely wine . It is a mild healing tonic that can be a great way to spice-up your day with the health benefits of galangal. 

Galangal wine is easy to prepare. Here’s how.

Hildegard’s Galangal Wine Recipe

Ingredients:

  • 1 tbsp fresh galangal root, peeled, sliced or minced
  • per 250 ml (8 oz) white wine

Preparation:

  • Combine wine and galangal root in kettle or saucepan.
  • Bring to a boil.
  • Reduce heat and Let the wine simmer for 10 minutes.
  • Let the wine cool down.
  • Remove or strain out galangal

Application:

  • Drink 2-3 times a day a day, preferably warm. Serve before meals for optimal digestive benefits.

Tip: If fresh galangal root is unavailable, you can use 1 tablespoon of organic galangal powder per 750 ml of wine. 

Precautions:

  • Since the galangal wine is cooked, the alcohol content is reduced, but it is still not suitable for people suffering from liver diseases or those with alcohol sensitivities. 
  • For adults only.
  • Pregnant women are not encouraged to take galangal because it may impact menstruation. 
  • In rare cases, galangal can cause stomach pressure and stomach aches after an overdose of galangal (over 2 g daily). We recommend trying small amounts to find your tolerance.

Galangal-Jamu Recipe

jamu Galanga

This recipe is for a wholesome and unique power drink inspired by an ancient East Indian tradition. The word ‘ Jamu ‘ stands for ‘ herbs, flowers and roots ‘ and refers to all herbal remedies and, more generally, traditional Indonesian medicine.

Ingredients:

  • 3 organic limes
  • ½ L Water
  • 2 sticks of lemon grass
  • 4 tbsp grated galangal root
  • 6 tbsp agave syrup or honey
  • 2 tbsp finely chopped peppermint leaves
  • 2 tbsp finely chopped nettle leaves
  • 2 teaspoons of turmeric
  • 1 drop of peppermint oil
  • 5 drops of orange oil

Preparation:

  • Remove the lime peels and place in the water
  • Bring to boil
  • Reduce heat and simmer until the water has a green color
  • Add-in the grated galangal root, lemon grass, and chopped herbs
  • Cook the broth for approx. 15 minutes
  • Remove the pot from heat and add the turmeric and the juice of the pressed limes
  • Add the remaining ingredients and mix well

Refreshing cold Galanga Jamu

Serve warm or cold. You can also mix your homemade Jamu drink with flat or sparkling mineral water and garnish with a mint leaf.

Also try our recipe for our Thai ginger soup.

Ginger vs Galangal: Where to Buy Galangal

Ginger vs Galanga

Unlike ginger, galangal is not readily available in most grocery stores. You can often find galangal at specialty health foods stores, local Asian or world-style markets, and at the major supermarket chain H-Mart. You may also find it on Amazon.

If you can’t find galanga, ginger is a fine substitute. In cooking, ginger will have a slightly sweeter and less “hot” flavor, but ginger and glanga have a comparable taste overall. Ginger and galanga are also both nutritionally similar, so you won’t be missing out either way.