Galangal: Better Health, Courtesy of Thailand – Rooting Out Cancer
If you enjoy Thai food, then you know galangal, even if you’ve never heard of it. This knobby root, a relative of ginger, is to Thai cooking what the chile is to Mexican cooking. Thai food wouldn’t taste “Thai” without it.
While the Chinese favor ginger, Thais prefer the taste of galangal, which is ginger-like—but with a sinus-penetrating, spicy-hot sensation. Its unique “mouth feel” has been likened to the quick heat of a chile without the lingering aftermath.
Though galangal is virtually unheard of in the Western world, people in Thailand, Indonesia, and other parts of Southeast Asia have been relying on it for centuries—and not only as a culinary spice. In Asia, galangal is actually better known as a medicine. Traditional healers have used it to treat arthritis, skin problems, digestive ills, diabetes, and even cancer.
Galangal’s therapeutic powers come from a unique set of anti-inflammatory compounds known as galangal acetate. So it’s no surprise that it might be effective against a common inflammatory disease—arthritis.
Researchers at the University of Miami studied 261 people with “moderate to severe” pain from knee osteoarthritis, giving them either a ginger/ galangal formula or a placebo. After six weeks, those taking ginger/galangal had less knee pain on standing, less knee pain after walking, were taking less medicine for acute pain from arthritis, had less stiffness, and could function better during the day. The findings were in the journal Arthritis and Rheumatism.
In another study, researchers from Johns Hopkins University tested the power of a ginger/ galangal formula on synoviocytes, the cells of the lubricating synovial fluid inside the joint. They found the formula decreased the production of chemokines, one of the components of the immune system that powers inflammation. “This formulation may be useful for suppressing inflammation due to arthritis,” concluded the researchers in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.
Researchers in Thailand tested an extract of galangal on chondrocytes—the cells in cartilage, the part of the joint that erodes in arthritis, causing bone-on-bone pain. The extract boosted the release of three compounds linked to stronger, healthier cartilage (hyaluronan, glycosaminoglycans, and metalloproteinases). An extract of galangal is “a potential therapeutic agent for treatment of osteoarthritis,” the researchers concluded in Phytochemistry.
Rooting Out Cancer
Scientists from around the world—including myself and my colleagues at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center—are investigating galangal as a cancer-fighter.
In my laboratory, we found that a compound in galangal—acetoxychavicol acetate (ACA)—turned off cancer genes, limiting the cellular growth of breast, skin, lung, and blood cancer.
Japanese researchers found that a galangal extract prevented skin cancer in laboratory animals. “Galangal may have potential importance for cancer chemoprevention [prevention by a natural compound],” the researchers concluded in the Journal of Natural Medicine.
There are three types of galangal plants—greater, lesser, and kaempferia—but only the root from greater galangal is popular in cooking.
Neuroblastoma is a childhood cancer. In the laboratory, Taiwanese researchers found that a galangal extract killed neuroblastoma cells. Galangal “may be useful for the treatment of patients with neuroblastoma,” the researchers concluded in Anticancer Research.
Researchers in Thailand wondered why the inhabitants of that country had a high rate of infection with Helicobacter pylori (HP)—a bacteria that lives in the stomach and that can cause stomach ulcers and stomach cancer—but a low rate of stomach cancer, compared to other developing countries where HP infection is also common. They found that several plants and spices used in Thai cuisine and medicine—including galangal—are powerful inhibitors of HP.
In England, researchers found that an extract of galangal triggered enzymes that help cells rid themselves of carcinogens, and that it also killed breast and lung cancer cells. “This dual action is quite rare among traditional anti-cancer medicines,” said Peter Houghton, PhD, the study leader. “Normally, extracts are able to boost healthy cells’ natural defenses against cancer or kill cancer cells—but galangal seems to do both.”
More Protection from Galangal
Other diseases that galangal might help prevent and/or treat include:
Diabetes. Researchers in Pakistan found that galangal powder lowered blood sugar (glucose) levels in laboratory animals as effectively as the diabetes drug gliclazide (Diamicron). They theorize that antioxidants in the spice stimulate the pancreas to release more insulin, the glucose-lowering hormone.
Ulcers. Japanese researchers found that galangal “completely inhibited” stomach ulcers in experimental animals, and did it better than three anti-ulcer drugs: omeprazole (Prilosec), cimetidine (Tagamet), and cetraxate hydrochloride (Zydis).
Galangal may help prevent and/or treat:
Diabetes, type 2
Galangal pairs well with these spices:
Black cumin seed
and complements recipes featuring:
Other recipes containing galangal:
Thai Red Curry Paste
Allergies. Researchers in Japan found that a galangal extract hampered the cellular process that causes allergic symptoms such as nasal congestion.
Getting to Know Galangal
There are three types of galangal plants—greater, lesser, and kaempferia—but only the root from greater galangal is popular in cooking. That’s because greater galangal is the mildest of the three. Lesser and kaempferia have an abrasive flavor, and are used more for medicinal purposes than for cooking.
Thai Coconut Chicken Soup
This soup is called tom kha kai in Thailand (kha meaning galangal) and it is one of the country’s national dishes. It is found on the menu of most Thai restaurants. The Thai ingredients can be found in Asian markets.
2 cups coconut milk
1 two-inch piece galangal, cut into thin slices, or 1 tablespoon galangal (Laos) powder
2 stalks lemongrass, cut into 1” pieces
5 fresh kaffir (lime) leaves, chopped
1 pound boned chicken breast, thinly sliced
1 cup chicken stock
2 teaspoons diced fresh red chiles
¼ cup Asian fish sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
½ cup lime juice
1 teaspoon black chili paste
½ cup cilantro, chopped
1. Combine 1 cup of coconut milk, the galangal, lemongrass, and kaffir leaves in a large saucepan and bring to a simmer.
2. Add the chicken, stock, chiles, fish sauce, and sugar. Simmer for 10 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through.
3. Add the remaining coconut milk and heat just to a boil but don’t let it boil. Stir in the lime juice and chili paste and simmer a few minutes. Serve sprinkled with the cilantro.
Makes 4 servings.
Greater galangal is used abundantly in the cuisines of Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Cambodia, and Indonesia, in curries, soups, stir-fries, and rice dishes. It is used fresh or powdered in most Thai recipes, where it’s the key ingredient in red and green curry pastes, and in the renowned coconut chicken soup called tom kha gai. (Kha means galangal in Thai.) It is also a key ingredient in Indonesian fiery-hot rendangs, meat-and-coconut slow-cooked stews served on festive occasions.
Galangal’s warming effect make it the perfect ingredient for imparting the mouth feel of alcohol to low-alcohol and alcohol-free beverages. In a taste test, when galangal was added to a 40-proof alcoholic beverage, the alcohol level was perceived to be greater than 60-proof. In another taste test, it made an alcohol-free beverage taste just like an alcohol-containing drink.
Native to Java, the galangal plant—about six feet tall, with pretty greenish-white, orchid-shaped flowers—is grown in many Southeast Asian countries, including Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines, and in China and India. It also goes by the names of galingale, galanga, callangall, and Thai ginger.
How to Buy Galangal
Galangal looks like a giant version of its well-known cousin ginger, but it’s much more fibrous and dense. You can purchase it fresh, frozen, canned, pickled, or dried; whole, in slices, or pulverized into a powder—though it’s next to impossible to find it in any of these forms except in an Asian market, or online through a Web site specializing in Thai foodstuffs.
When buying fresh galangal, buy it young. The young root provides optimum flavor and texture, and is the easiest to slice and work with. Young galangal has yellowish-brown skin with reddish-brown hues and a creamy beige interior. Look for a root that is firm, with smooth skin. Wrinkled skin is a sign of age.
Fresh galangal isn’t very perishable, so you can purchase it online. Put it in the refrigerator, wrapped in plastic, where it will keep for about two weeks. (Frozen, it keeps for about two months.)
Dried galangal usually comes in a package of chunks that look like old pieces of wood. It’s very hard: soak it in boiling water for 20 to 30 minutes before using. Dried galangal will keep for years, as long as it’s protected from moisture and heat.
If you’re unaccustomed to working with galangal, your best bet is to buy a powder. It’s often sold by the name Laos powder. But be careful when you cook with it! Powdered galangal is stronger than fresh, and it can really punish your sinuses if you get too close and take a sniff. Use half the amount of powder as you would fresh galangal. The powder keeps for about a year.
In the Kitchen with Galangal
By itself, galangal isn’t much to look at and offers little taste. But once it’s added to other spices and ingredients in a dish, it produces a flavor that is hard to match.
Thai cooks use it unpeeled and thinly sliced in dishes. If you find this unattractive, you can scrape or cut off the skin. You can also finely grate it.
Use galangal much the same way you’d use ginger in curries, stews, and soups. It offers a unique spicy taste to mayonnaise, sour cream, and ketchup. Just be careful not to overdo it, as it can take on a medicinal flavor.
Experts differ on whether or not ginger is a good substitute for galangal in a recipe. It doesn’t offer the same flavor, but because both flavors are distinct, I prefer substituting ginger rather than omitting galangal totally from the recipe.