Galangal is a ginger relative which has a very distinctive spicy, citrusy, flowery flavor. It is used in cuisines across Southeast Asia, in places like Thailand, Indonesia, and Laos, and some people consider it a cornerstone of Southeast Asian cuisine. Many Asian markets carry galangal in at least one form, and some major supermarkets may stock it as well, especially if they are located in an area where there is a large Southeast Asian population.
Superficially, galangal roots, the part of the plant used in cooking, look a great deal like ginger. They have a pale tan skin with a white to creamy, crunchy interior. The fresh spice is often used in thin slices, and it can also be cut into smaller segments. Dried galangal may be sold in the form of whole slices or a powder for flavoring. The flavors of the fresh and dried versions of the spice are different, with dried versions tending to taste sharper and sometimes becoming acrid if they are not stored under the proper conditions.
Greater galangal is the most widely used form of this spice. It is native to Java, and it has a slightly spicy flavor which is reminiscent of ginger, but slightly more peppery. Lesser galangal, native to China, is much hotter, and has orangish flesh which makes it easy to identify. This type can be difficult to obtain outside of Asia, except through specialty stores.
A fresh mix of galangal and lime is sometimes used as a refreshing and thirst quenching drink. Galangal is also popularly added to soups and curries across Southeast Asia, and it can be used to create flavored oils as well. When galangal is available fresh, it should be wrapped and stored under refrigeration when not in use. Some Asian markets sell a frozen version, giving people the flavor of the fresh spice when fresh roots are not available. Dried versions should be stored in a cool dry place and used within one year.
If a recipe calls for galangal and it is simply not available, cooks can use fresh ginger and a squirt of lime juice as a replacement. Although this will not precisely replicate the desired flavor, it can come rather close. Cooks who have difficulty finding the spice in their neighborhoods and want to experiment with it may want to consider a mail order service which sells dried spices through a catalog.