Last weekend we made our Malaysian Beef Curry, a slow, cinnamon and chili-spiced curry of beef slow-cooked in coconut milk and exotic flavorings. It's deep and rich, yet total home comfort food.
One of the key ingredients in the curry paste is galangal, an unfamiliar root that is yet deceptively similar to one of its cousins...
Galangal (pronounced guh-lang-guh) is often found in Thai, Indonesian, and Malaysian cooking. It's a rhizome - an underground creeping stem of a plant that sends out shooters to create new plants. Ginger is also a rhizome, and at first glance you might mistake galangal for ginger.
Ginger is on the left, above, and galangal on the right. You can see how the galangal is a little bigger - it also has a shinier, whiter skin than ginger's soft brown coating. It's much, much harder than ginger, too; ginger is usually juicy and soft enough to be grated with a ceramic grater.
Galangal is very hard and woody, although the center is usually a little softer and juicier than its woody exterior. Use a very sharp knife to cut it into splinters then grind it with a good spice grinder.
Galangal also tastes different than ginger. It's more piney and sharp, with a strong citrus scent. It gives, oddly, both an earthy note and a higher citrus note to curry pastes and dishes.
There aren't many good substitutes for galangal. Don't substitute ginger; they are often both called for in Malaysian and Indonesian recipes anyhow. You can find galangal powder which adds a little of its citrus flavor, but it's not a good substitute for the real thing. You can usually find frozen galangal, however, in your Asian grocer's freezer, if you can't find fresh.