Galangal Vs. Turmeric: SPICEography Showdown

Galangal and turmeric are two rhizomes in the Zingiberaceae family, which means that they are both related to ginger. Galangal and turmeric are both widely used in Asia and increasingly all over the world. You will need both spices if you want to make Authentic dishes from Southeast Asia and India. Does the fact that they are related mean that they are also interchangeable? How much do they have in common? Let’s answer those questions and more in this SPICEography Showdown.

How does galangal differ from turmeric?

Galangal and turmeric have different flavor profiles. Galangal’s flavor is sharp with notes of cinnamon and citrus accompanied by a hint of black pepper; turmeric’s flavor is much milder. Turmeric’s flavor has a subtle earthiness and bitterness.

Galangal looks noticeably different from turmeric both inside and out, despite having a similar shape. Unpeeled fresh galangal has a similar color to unpeeled fresh ginger. It is tan with light rings on the skin. On the inside, its flesh is a very pale cream color. Turmeric has darker brown skin with darker and more obvious rings. When you cut turmeric open, the flesh is an intense yellow that is almost orange. The pigment in turmeric will stain your fingers, your chopping board and your clothes if you are not careful.

The texture of galangal differs from turmeric as well. Galangal is notoriously tough and woody, making it difficult to grate unless it is young and tender. Mature galangal must be pounded to a paste or sliced and steeped in a liquid. Turmeric is similar to ginger and is easier to grate and use when fresh; however, it is usually dried and ground to powder. Making it into a powder helps to eliminate much of the bitterness.

Galangal and turmeric differ in how easy they are to find. Neither galangal nor turmeric is widely available in its fresh form in much of the world. In the US, you are only likely to see them in some Asian markets; however, dried turmeric is relatively common and inexpensive because of its popularity as a health supplement.

If your recipe calls for one, can you use the other?

Galangal and turmeric have dramatically different flavor profiles. If you use one as a substitute for the other, you will be making a significant change in how the dish looks and tastes. A dish with galangal instead of turmeric will have the strong galangal flavor and none of the turmeric color. Similarly, a dish with turmeric instead of galangal will be bright yellow and lacking in galangal’s strong flavor. Using one in place of the other won’t necessarily ruin a dish, but you should only make the switch if you want to make a striking change to the recipe.

When should you use galangal, and when should you use turmeric?

Galangal is a key ingredient in many Thai and Southeast Asian recipes; it is one of the essentials in Thailand’s famous tom kha and tom yum soups. It is also essential for the flavor of red and green curry pastes. Turmeric is used in dishes from the subcontinent and in curry powder, an English spice blend influenced by Indian flavors. Turmeric is essential for turmeric rice, which shows up all over Asia, as well as for classic Indian dishes like jeera aloo and aloo gobi. You will also see it used to color the frozen milk dessert known as kulfi.