Ginger and galangal are two Asian rhizomes that belong to the same family. Both provide flavors that are essential for making numerous Eastern and Western dishes. They are similar in a few ways, but very different in others. In this SPICEography Showdown we compare the respective qualities of galangal and ginger, so you can determine what to expect from and how to use each spice.
How are galangal and ginger different from each other?
Galangal’s most important difference (when compared to ginger) is its flavor. The most common variety of galangal can be milder than some varieties of ginger, but other varieties may be spicier than ginger.
It is important to note that ginger’s own flavor intensity can differ significantly depending on the variety of ginger and the conditions in which it is grown; ginger can be mellow and sweet or it can be aggressively hot. Galangal can also have flavors similar to citrus and pine, which are not found in most forms of ginger but which do occur in some. Whether it is hot or mild, ginger is generally sweetly aromatic in a way that reminds some people of cinnamon or cardamom.
Another key difference has to do with the texture of each rhizome. Galangal is hard, which makes it difficult to grate. In most cases, you will have to slice it to use it. You will need a knife or a vegetable peeler to remove the skin. Ginger is generally softer and can be peeled and grated with ease. Some varieties can even be peeled with the edge of a spoon.
Galangal is the more difficult spice of the two to find in the west and will be more expensive. Your best bet when it comes to sourcing it will be in an Asian grocery store; ginger can be found in almost any supermarket.
Lastly, these two rhizomes differ from each other in appearance. Galangal generally has a glossier, deep amber skin while the skin of ginger can vary from pale brown with a light silvery sheen to an amber (similar to that of galangal). Again, this depends on the variety.
Can you use galangal in place of ginger and vice versa?
The question as to whether these spices are interchangeable is debatable. The flavor profiles of some varieties of galangal are similar enough to some varieties of ginger that a savory dish will not be ruined if you omit one and use the other in its place.
That said, they are very different spices and each brings something unique to savory preparations. The omission will render a noticeably different flavor profile and galangal cannot replace ginger in Western-style desserts and baked goods. For example, a galangal bread will not be as enjoyable (or familiar) to most people as gingerbread.
When should you use galangal and when should you use ginger?
Use galangal in savory South Asian dishes like Thailand’s tom yum soup or Indonesian ones like soto ayam. You will want to limit its use to these and similar dishes until you are comfortable enough with it to experiment. There are not many established western dishes that feature galangal.
Ginger is an ingredient in both of the galangal applications mentioned above because it brings something to each dish that galangal does not. It is also used in a wide variety of dishes from all over Asia. It is used in African and Middle Eastern recipes. Cooks in the Americas and Europe have used it in pies, cakes, and certain breads for centuries.