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Ginger is well-known and widely available; galangal by contrast is hard to find. Galangal has a far more complex flavour, or bouquet of flavours, than ginger. Galangal's unique combination of flavours ranges from fresh and fruity to lemony, peppery and savoury.

Since the middle ages and Hildegard von Bingen

Sometimes called Thai ginger, galangal is used in a lot of Thai dishes from soups and curries to stir-fries from the wok. Galangal harmonizes brilliantly with coconut milk and garlic and gives poultry and fish a fresh, sharp taste. It's a absolute must for nasi goreng, the Indonesian rice dish. In the middle ages, galangal was used in Europe as a replacement for pepper. The Benedictine wise woman, Hildegard von Bingen, was convinced of its medicinal properties, calling it the "spice of life" and recommending it for heart and digestive tract problems. Drinking galangal tea is thought to boost your immune system and to combat colds and fevers.

In Germany, you can get two types of galangal, they both belong to the ginger family and are closely related. There's the mild Greater galangal (Alpinia galangal) and the rather more peppery Lesser galangal (Alpinia officinarum). Both plants have large leaves and white flowers. The rhizomes, which are the part we eat, can grow up to a metre long and two centimetres in diameter. Contrary to popular belief, rhizomes are not roots but rather underground shoots. Galangal rhizomes look a little like ginger, but they have a translucent skin and darker rings.

Origins, buying, storing and using

Galangal originated from China and Thailand. Greater galangal is now grown and used all over South East Asia, whereas Lesser galangal grows and is used almost only Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Galangal is grown in tropical regions – in Indochina, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. The rhizomes are harvested after several months' growth and cut into chunks a couple of centimetres long.

Galangal can be bought fresh, preserved, dried in slices and in powder form. It's usually Greater galangal that you find for sale in Asian shops and in well-stocked supermarkets. If you buy it fresh, wrap it in foil and store it in the vegetable drawer of your fridge, where it will keep for two to three weeks. Before adding galangal to a dish, you need to slice it, chop it or grate it. If you're using slices of dried galangal, you need to soak them in water for half an hour before using them. Take chunks of galangal out of the dish before you serve it up.

Source: Heike Kreutz, www.aid.de