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Galangal

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Names of Galangal, past and present

Chinese: hong dou kou / da guo liang jiang / sha jiang
Hindi: kulinjan / chandramula
Thai: kha yai
Indonesian: kha ta daeng
Filipino: langkauas / gisol / disol
Arabic: khalanjan
French: galanga de l’Inde / grand galanga / petit galanga
Spanish: calanga / garengal
Italian: galanga maggiore / galanga minore
English: greater galangal / lesser galangal (each being separate varieties of the same genus) / low John the Conqueror root / chewing John / Laos ginger / Blue ginger / Siam ginger
Latin (scientific nomenclature): Alpinia galangal (greater galangal) / Alpinia officinarum (lesser galangal)

Background and History

Galangal is a rhizomatous plant closely related to ginger (Zingiberis officinalis), and in many ways resembling it both superficially, and sometimes (albeit rarely) in flavour-profile. Said to be a native of Indonesia or Indochina, galangal thrives in many areas of the world and is not limited to the Asiatic continents, although it does flourish well in such areas, most notably in Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Laos. Elsewhere, galangal thrives in the New World, Africa, Arabia (and its subsequent territories), and even in select areas of Europe and Eurasia, notably in Spain, Italy, and Russia. There are two distinct varieties of galangal – the greater galangal and the lesser galangal (by no means differentiated by any true distinct difference in relative size, but simply by taxonomy), both of which closely resemble one another in nearly every respect so as to be nearly indistinguishable from each other safe through very close scrutiny of its flavour-profile, or its genetic structure.

Galangal
Galangal
Galangal background image © chamillew - Fotolia.com #46946925

Galangal was initially very popular throughout the majority of Asia since ancient times, being employed for culinary and medicinal uses to this day. From Asia, its use was said to have spread throughout the Russian continent, until it finally landed in and around the greater part of Europe, where it was a choice spice until well into the Enlightenment (circa 1650s), where its popularity within a large part of Asia (from China to India) the majority of Europe (with the exception of Russia, and Eastern Europe) dwindled. Prior to its eventual evanescence, galangal was a very popular and highly coveted spice, and was – temporarily – employed in lieu of ginger during those times. Despite its decline as a culinary spice and general medicinal plant during the latter part of the 1600s, its popularity only slightly experienced a very subtle resurgence during the latter part of the 1800s, only to dwindle again, this time significantly so. [1]

Of its two distinct varieties – lesser galangal (Alpinia officinarum) and greater galangal (Alpinia galangal), the former became the most popular primarily due to the relative intensity of its flavour which was decidedly more robust than that of the greater galangal. Both varieties however enjoyed nearly equal popularity as medicinal spices, although the former was typically more preferred as culinary spice than was the latter, of course with a large margin for exceptions in areas where only greater galangal was made available.

Both lesser and greater galangal are characterised primarily by their chive-like growth of thin-stalked light-green to dark green blade-shaped leaves and its uniquely shaped white-hued inflorescence characterised by maroon or burgundy veins near the lip of the flower petal. The plant grows to no more than some five to five-and-a-half feet tall in some specimens, although, if improperly tended, they tend to grow shorter. Both of its rhizomes are predominantly ginger-like in appearance albeit immature species tend to be cylindrical in shape and possessed of discernable whitish rings around its circumference resembling growth rings. Greater galangal possesses a lighter, almost orange-brown to tawny colouration and relatively mellower taste and aroma when compared to the darker, smaller, and more aromatically intense lesser galangal. [2]

Both varieties were initially used chiefly in their fresh form within the Asian continent, but as it spread well into the European continents and adapted into their medicinal and culinary purposes, the use of galangal as a dried (more commonly sliced, although generally powdered or granulated) spice became more frequent. Ancient and now obsolete medicinal practices limited to some areas of Asia once employed all the parts of the plant for medicinal and culinary purposes, although nowadays, the primary plant part employed for any purpose rests solely in the rhizome.

Galangal - Common / Popular Uses

Despite being a relative of the ginger-family, galangal is not at all that very popular in regular cuisine, much less in commonplace herbalism. In India, China, and Thailand, galangal (both the greater and lesser varieties) are employed primarily as a culinary spice in either its fresh or dried (and subsequently, prepared) form. It can be found as an almost integral addition to soup dishes, especially meat-based foodstuffs, typically accompanied by other ‘hot’ spices. One of the most popular foodstuffs that feature galangal as a primary ingredient is Thai curry (and some varieties of Indian curry), which employ spiced fresh, or dried-powdered galangal as a primary component for its spicy soup-base. [3] Because the root of the galangal is generally tougher than that of ginger, it is not commonly crushed and integrated into foodstuffs as would be ginger, but rather sliced thinly or otherwise grated into the featured dish. Due to its harder nature, galangal also requires longer cooking times to be ‘edible’, resulting in two distinct results – the foodstuffs that feature it generally become more flavourful (although this can vary depending on the type of galangal employed), and that more often than not, whole or sliced galangal that has not sufficiently softened to be edible in the fullest sense is simply set aside or discarded after cooking. This hardness makes galangal useful for the creation of foodstuffs that require long, slow cooking such as stews and casseroles. Furthermore, powdered galangal may also be employed as a general seasoning, or as a base or complimentary spice to rubs. The hardness does become a problem, however, since aged whole galangal roots become very tough and dense, especially if they are harvested in their maturity, by which time the roots will have become fibrous. In this light, fresh galangal or pre-prepared dried galangal (either in powdered or granulated form) is a better choice than whole dried rhizomes.

When used in its fresh or dried form, galangal may be decocted into a tea which can then be drunk as a remedy for indigestion. In traditional Chinese medicine as well as in Ayurvedic medicine, galangal is chiefly drunk as an appetite inducer and digestif in its mildest preparations. Moderately concentrated decoctions of the root are either drunk as a remedy for flatulence and stomachache, or otherwise imbibed as a ‘fat burning’ beverage. [4] In its mild and moderately mild concentrations, decoctions of the root can also be employed as a remedy for nausea, dyspepsia, and vomiting. Strong decoctions are usually given to individuals who are suffering from fever or flu, as it not only effectively lowers the fever (being a well-known febrifuge in Ancient Chinese Medicines), but it also soothes muscular aches and pains associated with flu. Because it tonifies the muscular tissues of the body and acts as a mild to moderately strong analgesic, galangal tea is also an excellent after-work out drink. In folkloric Eastern European herbalism as well as Arabic alternative medicine, galangal root (regardless of its preparation) is employed chiefly as a stimulant, and is either drunk or consumed as an energizing and enervating substance. [5] Very potent decoctions of the roots are commonly given as an emmenagogue for females, or an aphrodisiac drink for males, although it has also been employed as a primitive abortifacient (due, undoubtedly, to its former usage). Washes made from galangal root have even been employed as a local antiseptic – a practice which is common throughout all cultures that has been exposed to galangal. Its stimulatory properties also make galangal useful for individuals who suffer from cardiac-related disorders, as a draught of moderately potent galangal decoction is said to stimulate and tonify the heart. In this light, it was employed by earlier cultures as a treatment for angina and arrhythmia. [6]

In traditional Filipino folkloric medicine, the leaves of the galangal plant, as well as its seeds are typically decocted (with, or without the rhizome) as a remedy for amoebas and ulcers. A decoction of the seeds alone is employed as a mild stomachic, a stenutatory, and a calefacient. Very potent decoctions of the root and seeds are also applied topically as a remedy for various fungal infections, and even as a treatment for internal / intestinal parasites. [6]

In Spain and regions once under the Spanish rule, galangal root is usually mixed with ground chufa nuts, and is sweetened with molasses or cane sugar and diluted with water to form an energizing and filling dessert-like beverage called horchata, which is typically drunk after a hard day to soothe aching muscles and fill grumbling stomachs. A Mexican variant of the drink (which goes by a similar name) is instead made of ground and powdered rice. In some regions of the Philippines, a variant of this filling Spanish beverage is typically made from galangal roots and seeds, cane sugar, and wild honey mixed with water, albeit without the addition of the grain. This spicy-sweet mixture was boiled and placed in bamboo vats or wooden containers and allowed to ferment, resulting in the creation of a potent stimulatory, yet moderately intoxicating beverage (sometimes referred to as tip’ay), or otherwise drunk immediately after preparation to achieve a sort of ‘sensory-high’ generally accompanied by restlessness and increased physical vigour.

When employed in its dry form, it can be gnawed on to prevent seasickness and nausea – a common practice for many Asiatic (and later) European seafarers on very rough voyages. It has also been given in its sliced or granulated form to animals, usually intermixed with their fodder to help enervate them. It was said that the Arabs would feed their horses chunks of galangal root to make them ‘fiery’ and fierce as well as resistant to tiring and diseases. Very finely powdered galangal root has even been employed as a type of snuff in lieu of tobacco. It is said that it effectively clears the nasal passageways as it gives a jolting boost of energy all at the same time. Powdered galangal root has even been employed as an early type of antimicrobial agent; it was sprinkled on minor to moderate types of injuries prior to patching up to avoid infection. Galangal root powder has also been employed as a cure for catarrh, while a mixture of ground or powdered roots and honey has been used as a remedy for sore throat and mumps. [7] In Filipino shamanic medicine, the powdered root is typically applied to open wounds both for its antibacterial effects (thus staving off infection), and for its ability to induce wound healing through its citrizant (scarification) action. The dry rhizomes may be pounded, heated, and applied to rheumy or arthritic parts for quick pain-relief, or otherwise allowed to steep in oil, with the resulting ointment applied topically for similar results. Dried galangal may also be employed as an additive for perfumery, especially when a mildly spicy, yet slightly floral note is required.

To that end, the essential oil of galangal is employed chiefly in perfumery, although it has been used homeopathically and aromatherpeutically for its stimulatory and energizing benefits. Mixed with a base-oil, it is employed as an anti-arthritic and anti-rheumatic ointment, or otherwise as a topical hair and scalp oil said to promote hair growth by increasing blood flow towards the scalp. This dilution may also be applied orally to relieve the pain of toothaches and to soothe and hasten the healing of bleeding gums. Having been long used (in whole form) as a natural insect repellant during ancient times, a mixture of its essential oil along with a chosen base also suffices as an all-natural topical insect repellant, especially when combined with the essential oils of mandarin and lemongrass. [8]

When allowed to steep and macerate in one’s choice of 100% proof alcoholic beverage, the resulting tincture is typically employed as a stomachic, digestif, appetite stimulant, and enervating stimulant. When applied topically, it is said to increase or improve blood flow, which is why it can and is sometimes used as a base for topical liniments that encourage hair-growth. Its antibacterial properties also make galangal tincture highly effective in disinfecting and sanitizing open wounds, although, due to its constituents, any such attempt can prove to be very painful.

Galangal - Magickal / Esoteric Uses

Though not such a well-known spice in the Western world, galangal is considered important in Western ceremonial magick and in hedge witchcraft, where it is chiefly used as a talismanic object to ward off malignant forces, or otherwise break hexes and curses. When burnt as an incense, it may be used to exorcise negative or evil entities, or otherwise employed to invigorate and energize one’s person, especially in terms of physical intimacy. [9]

Galangal was mentioned in the major treatise on ceremonial magick by the infamous Aleister Crowley, in what is actually a rather lovely description of "The Holy Oil". He states: "The Holy Oil is the Aspiration of the Magician; it is that which consecrates him to the performance of the Great Work... This oil is compounded of four substances. The basis of all is the oil of the olive... In this are dissolved three other oils; oil of myrrh, oil of cinnamon, oil of galangal. The Myrrh is attributed to Binah, the Great Mother, who is both the understanding of the Magician and that sorrow and compassion which results from the contemplation of the Universe. The Cinnamon represents Tiphereth, the Sun -- the Son, in whom Glory and Suffering are identical. The Galangal represents both Kether and Malkuth, the First and the Last, the One and the Many, since in this Oil they are One." [10] In African magick and its subsequent variants (i. e. voodoo / hoodoo), galangal root is employed for protection as well as empowerment. Sometimes called ‘Low John the Conqueror’ root, it is usually employed to bolster the efficiency of herbalistic spellworking, or otherwise fortify any set mixture of herbs encased within a mojo, a gris-gris or a medicine pouch. Within the shamanic context, galangal root is worn as an amulet to protect the bearer from physical harm, while hoodoo and voodoo prescribe its use to attract luck and money. The shamanic paradigm also employed galangal root as an enervating drink, usually included in hallucinogenic herbal brews to help improve and increase one’s stamina during visions. It may also prove beneficial for such purposes due to its mildly hallucinogenic nature. Powdered and sprinkled around a room, it is said to evoke feelings of lust and intimacy – a practice long-employed in the Far East by high-ranking and moneyed women. When allowed to macerate in oil and employed for the purposes of massage, it is also said to evoke similar feelings on a more intense scale. Because of its ‘fiery’ nature, it has been used by voodoo practitioners (if not nearly all magickal schools) for fixing or love spells, as well as for fortification and protection. Hedge witchcraft purports that whole, unblemished galangal root encased in a medicine pouch and worn on one’s person or otherwise hung or kept above the threshold of a house would protect it from and negative energies directed unto those who reside within. [11]

Galangal - Safety Notes

While the use of galangal in moderate amounts is relatively safe, the root, regardless of its preparation should not be consumed in excess, especially in the case of pregnant women and women who are trying to conceive, due to its being a potent emmenagogue and a potential (in very large or concentrated dosages) abortifacient. Galangal root also possesses mildly hallucinogenic properties and may impair an individual’s capacity for proper thought if consumed in excess. Its enervating properties may also pose the risk of over-stimulation if taken under similar grounds. Due to its considerably far more potent nature (when compared to ginger root), galangal should only be consumed in minute to moderate dosages, preferably under the supervision of an expert herbalist.

References:

[1 – 2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galangal

[3] http://www.woolworths.com.au/wps/wcm/connect/website/woolworths/freshfoodideas/fresh+food+guides/whatsinseason/galangal

[4] http://unitproj.library.ucla.edu/biomed/spice/index.cfm?displayID=29

[5] http://botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/g/galang01.html

[6] http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-09-16/diet/30160762_1_ginger-health-benefits-arthritis

[7] http://www.stuartxchange.com/Lankauas.html

[8] http://www.stuartxchange.com/Dusol.html

[9] http://www.themagickmoon.com/galangal-root.html

[10] Aleister Crowley - "Magick In Theory And Practice", 1912-1913. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magick_(Book_4)

[11] http://faeriekat.wordpress.com/2008/02/13/g-is-for-galangal/

Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt. Scientific studies report by Dan Ablir. © herbs-info.com 2013

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