Galangal is a type of ginger used in the Thai kitchen as well as other Southeast-Asian cuisines. Also referred to as Siamese Ginger, it has a slightly milder taste than the North American variety, and can be distinguished by its reddish skin. Look for galangal at your local Asian market (fresh or frozen) or grocery store. (Note that galangal can also be purchased in its dried, ground form; however, like ground ginger, the dried version does not have the same quality of flavor or nutrients as the fresh.)
Galangal is now grown in most Southeast-Asian countries, but was first harvested for use in cooking and medicine in China and Java. But by the Middle Ages, galangal had traveled extensively, and was already in common use throughout Europe. Referred to as "the spice of life" by St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), galangal was, in fact, one of her favorite remedies. This famous herbalist used galangal to treat everything from deafness and heart disease to indigestion.
During the 13th-14th centuries, galangal was used by the Turkic peoples (who occupied much of present-day Russia) as a tea, and by the Arabs as a stimulant for their horses. It was used extensively throughout the East as a snuff for nasal infections, and in both Europe and Asia as an appetite stimulant and aphrodisiac.
Today, galangal is still in use in Russia, where it is used to make vinegars as well as liqueurs. It also has a thriving market in India, where it is not only valued as a spice but also as a perfume to make deodorants. Presently galangal remains, however, most commonly used in Southeast-Asian countries like Thailand, where the spice is not only a medicine, but has become part of the daily diet-which tells you how healthy Thai cuisine really is!