Though similar in appearance to ginger, galangal has a tighter skin, is lighter in colour - occasionally pinkish - and is harder and more dense than ginger. It tastes more like pepper than ginger does. When dried and ground greater galangal is called laos powder.

Although known in Europe since the Middle Ages, galangal is now used only in south-east Asian cookery. It is commonly used as a seasoning ingredient in Indonesian and Thai food, mainly curries and meat dishes. Like ginger, galangal is a 'de-fisher' and so appears frequently in fish and shellfish recipes often with garlic, ginger, chilli and lemon or tamarind.