When I was growing up, one of my favourite cookbooks from my mother’s collection was the More-with-Less Cookbook. And one of my favourite recipes from it was Nasi Goreng, which is a fried rice dish from Indonesia. It is made with a half-score of spices, but among them are two that, in the Bow Valley of Alberta in the early 1980s, were not readily available: “sereh powder (lemon grass or citronella)” and “laos (Java galingale root).” The recipe had a note that those two could be omitted, “but the dish loses some of its Spice Island authenticity.”
So omit them I did until, one day around 1990, after we had moved to Edmonton, I spotted a section of spices imported by the Dutch company Conimex, and among them were serehpoeder and galangal. Score! I was not surprised by how lemon grass tasted; the name gives a pretty good hint. But galangal? Huh. Really! Whaddya know.
What would you guess from the taste of the word? Does it taste somewhat of guggul? Is it something that might be eaten by Gargantua and Pantagruel, perhaps by the gallon? Does is jingle and jangle, like shang-a-lang or bangarang? Or two western girls, gal an’ gal? But what about the other form, galingale – what does a nightingale taste like? Or a farthingale? The word may have a little echo of angular, but I don’t find the sound of it sharply angular; the voiced stops are blunter, and the second one has a nasal before it for added cushioning – and the liquids are no more angular than flapping sheets of paper or thin slices of ham. Nor are the letter shapes angular. The l and l are straight, no angles; the other letters prefer curves, in the main.
The thing itself is a rhizome. It looks rather like ginger – so rather knobby and round and tawny – and in fact it is related to ginger. But it doesn’t really taste link ginger. Ginger (that good old Zingiber) is a zinger: pungent, somewhat zippy, even hot on the tongue. But galangal? No zip; more like a dusty mustard flavour. As a flavour by itself, about as charming as pure turmeric, but it works in combination.
And whence this word? The form galingale gives some indication that it’s been around English for some time, and even if it couldn’t be found in the Bow Valley in 1982 it could be found in Chaucer in 1405 and Caxton in 1480: “A Cook they hadde with hem for the nones To boille the chiknes with the Marybones And poudre marchaunt. tart and Galyngale”; “Ther groweth galyngal, cytoual, gynger canel & encens.” But English got the word, like the spice, from distant lands. What distant lands? South Asia and Southeast Asia and East Asia… such a broad designation is not problematic for a herb; they do grow over various areas. But one does like to be more precise when it comes to languages.
Well, one does when one can. The problem is that words mutate much more quickly than wild plants, generally. If you have a plant that grows in one place and it spreads to another place, it stays pretty much the same. But when you take a word from one place to another, it gets changed. And, for that matter, even in its own native soil (as it were), it changes too. And the trail is much muddied for this word. But most likely it comes from ultimately from Ancient Chinese – and has spread to Arabic, Persian, Latin, and on to many other Western European languages.
As the spice did to their kitchens. Over time, the spice and its name became much less in evidence in common cookery in Europe, for whatever reason (other spices certainly held on). But things get around much more readily these days. Spices need not travel by hazardous ship journeys or long camel overlands. And the world wide web has become an enormous spice cupboard of words.