How do you say galangal?
I say it with the stress on the first syllable. But that’s because I first saw it written as galingale. If you know nightingale and perhaps farthingale, the stress seems pretty obvious.
But why would anyone spell it galingale?
You may not know what galangal is. I learned of it when I was young. I wanted to make nasi goreng – an Indonesian dish I first had at Zigg’s Junktion, a long-gone restaurant in Canmore – and I found a recipe in one of my favourite cookbooks, The More-with-Less Cookbook. It listed a couple of spices that were new to me, with a note that I could leave them out but the dish would lose some of its Spice Islands authenticity.
Ooh! Authenticity! Doesn’t everyone love authentic experiences in food? You’re not just getting nutrition and delicion, you’re getting tradition and expedition! Alas, when I first made it, I did not have access to those spices, “sereh powder (lemongrass)” and “Java galingale root.” So when I finally found them a few years later, I was stoked to add them to it.
If you’ve been to a Thai restaurant or a spa (or a spa with a Thai restaurant attached), or if you have a reasonably extensible imagination, I don’t need to tell you what lemon grass tastes like. But galingale root?
When I finally found it I wasn’t sure at first if I had found it, because the package said galangal. I exercised my faculty of inference and decided that galingale was an Anglicized version of galangal. So by getting this package I was getting even more authenticity, right? Anyway, the galangal I got was like ginger without the gingery part, sort of like how sweet peppers are like hot peppers without the peppery part. It was kind of a vaguely mustard-tasting root. But it did add something, and not just authenticity! (It turns out stronger-flavoured galangal certainly does exist.)
These days you don’t often see it written as galingale. Not only that: many people, seeing it written galangal, put the stress on the second syllable. The whole word becomes a bell ringing the exotic authenticity and authentic exoticity of it! So why galingale in the first place?
Well… the word has been in English for quite a while. Here’s Geoffrey Chaucer mentioning it in the prologue of his Canterbury Tales: “A Cook they hadde with hem for the nones To boille the chiknes with the Marybones And poudre marchaunt. tart and Galyngale.”
So yeah. English got it from Anglo-Norman, which came from Old French; Old French spelled it a few ways, one of which was galangal, but by the time it got to English we preferred something more like galingale or galyngal (until recently). The OED tells me that Old French got it from Arabic ḵalanjān, and Arabic borrowed it from Persian, which might have gotten it from somewhere else but who knows – it might (per Wiktionary) trace back to Chinese gāoliángjiāng, which means “ginger from Gaoliang.”
All of which makes perfect sense when you realize that the spice in question is native to Java, which is now the main island of Indonesia. Yeah.
Guess what it’s called in Indonesian.
It’s called lengkuas.
Well, OK, there are actually four plants we call galangal, and they don’t all have the same name in Indonesian. But we might as well call them galingale. We just wouldn’t feel as “authentic” about it that way.
Or, you know, just eat it. Words are delicious, but food is even deliciouser.