Say it with me: guh-LANG-gull.
Think of galangal (or galanga root) as a sort of Thai ginger, with a Thai kickboxing kind of kick. THWOCK!
Seriously, galangal is potent stuff. It is a rhizome, like ginger, and even has a similar beige, knobbly exterior. But, it is more robust than ginger, and a bit moister as well. Galangal to me tastes like ginger spiked with lemongrass and kaffir lime (or, if you're not familiar with those flavors, think Lemon Pledge and concentrated lime juice). When eaten raw, it has a similar sinus-stinging, brain-thumping quality as horseradish. Maybe not a Mike Tyson sort of thumpin', but certainly a Noppadet Chengsimiw.
Galangal is an integral ingredient in many Thai dishes, especially in curry paste. Most recipes state you can substitute ginger for galangal. But, that is a mistake. There really is no substitute for galangal. Here, read what talented (and contrarian) Napa Valley winemaker Jayson Woodbridge thinks about substitutions and short-cuts in one's career, using Thai green curry (and galangal) as metaphor:
[Take] Thai green curry -- it's one of the most amazing foods in the world. Most people buy it as canned crap, but when you have it fresh, it's fabulous. True, the ingredients can be hard to find. But if a person can't find galangal, they're not motivated enough to make Thai green curry, and should stick to Chef Boyardee.
Thank goodness I was motivated to find galangal. Wouldn't want folk thinking my Thai green curry -- or my professional work -- was Chef Boyardee canned crap.
Here's a simple yet hearty soup recipe that uses generous amounts of fresh galangal. This is a popular Thai dish, Chicken and Galangal soup, or what the Thai call tom kha gai. And it is so NOT Chef Boyardee!
Tom Kha Gai ("Chicken Galangal Soup")
1.5 lbs chicken (boneless, skinless breasts)
4 oz chanterelle mushroom, sliced into bite-sized pieces
2 cans coconut milk (27 ounces)
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 "thumb-sized" pieces galangal, peeled and thinly sliced
4 lemongrass stalks, thinly sliced on the diagonal
3 Thai chilies, chopped
8 to 10 kaffir lime leaves, torn
12 black peppercorns, smashed
3 Tbsp kaffir lime juice
2 Tbsp Thai fish sauce
Zest of 1 kaffir lime
3 Tbsp shallot greens, chopped
Fresh cilantro to garnish
Slice chicken into thin, bite-sized pieces and set aside. Meanwhile, heat coconut milk and vegetable/chicken stock in a large pot or dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add lemongrass, chilies, galangal, kaffir lime leaves and pepper. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes -- long enough for the flavors to suffuse the soup. Pour contents through a strainer into a large bowl, then return liquid back to pot. (Compost the spent vegetables or, if you prefer, you can purée these now softened, milder-flavored veggies and add them back to the soup or save them for other curries.)
Raise heat back to a medium-low. Now add chicken and mushroom, and simmer until chicken is cooked through (about 15 minutes or so). Stir in kaffir lime juice and fish sauce. Ladle soup into bowls, and garnish with freshly zested kaffir lime, cilantro sprigs, the chopped shallot greens, and a single, red Thai chili pepper.
Kŏr hâi jà-rern aahăan!