Laser Ginger: A Botanical Mystery Solved

Lesser Ginger Alpinia officinarum

The urge to run away to some far off destination is strong this winter, made worse by the particularly long and dark days of this past fall, and winter events like last week’s ice storm. To appease wanderlust I have been taking advantage of the holiday break to make trips around town to browse shops that I know hold new discoveries to be made. Junk stores and flea markets are good for this and I have been to both within the last week. We made a special trip to The Monkey’s Paw, a bookstore here in Toronto that specializes in a particularly eccentric and wide range of old books — I saw a collection of euphorbia journals from the 1980′s there that I am desperate to have. Toronto’s Chinatown, Kensington Market, and the further flung Little India have also always been my go-to neighbourhoods when I am in need of visual stimulation and the desire to have the sort of learning experiences that come with travel, and it was the former that was the scene for the story I am about to tell.

I have been to Chinatown twice over the break. The first trip was to take a friend who hadn’t been in over a decade. The second was because writing about growing ginger and then reading the book, Roots: The Definitive Compendium with more than 225 Recipes [highly recommended by-the-way] prompted me to go out on a hunt for fresh galangal root (Alpinia galanga) to grow.

Galangal aka greater galangal is a member of the ginger family (Zingiberaceae) and the rhizome is used much like ginger in South Asian cooking. We took a cooking class in Thailand and were able to use some there, but I haven’t thought about it much since. The aroma and flavour is more potently floral than ginger, almost medicinal in quality. I have to admit that it is this medicinal pungency that has put me off it in the past, but recipes in Roots for salmon wrapped in banana leaf with galangal-lemongrass marinade and lacy galangal brandy crisps compelled me to give it another shot. But I digress. I did find the fresh galangal I was looking for, but this post isn’t really about that root, it is about another that I found in the same store.

Lesser Ginger Alpinia officinarum

The package labelled, “Laser Ginger” intrigued me. What could it be? The elongated roots reminded me of the fresh shoots that develop when I grow ginger, but the little bits of rhizome at the top did not look like regular ginger. I did a few quick online searches, but nothing came up. A friend suggested that two AAA batteries might get the laser working.

Back at home I opened up the package and smelled the roots. I cut off a piece and tasted it — woody meets sweet with a barely detectable ginger bite and a hint of cinnamon. Next, I grabbed every relevant edible plant and spices book I could find on my shelves and had a look. I started with entries on ginger and galangal until I found reference to a lesser galangal (Alpinia officinarum) aka lesser ginger. This had to be it!

I am almost sad to report that “Laser Ginger” is not an intergalactic ginger root that shoots lasers or a secret weapon against the forthcoming (not really) alien invasion. It is simply a misspelling of the word “lesser.” According to the Roots book, the rhizome is used in Russia to “…flavour vinegar, tea, and a popular liqueur.” Like its relatives, it is also used to flavour sauces, curries, and soups and is sometimes valued as superior to greater galangal. It is hard to find fresh in North America, so I got lucky. As with many new-to-me herbs and spices I intend to slice some up and soak it in vodka to see what happens. I will also stick a piece into soil along with the greater galangal and try to grow it in a pot as I do ginger. I don’t expect it to do much over the darker winter months, but photos of the plant are stunning. The leaves are wider than ginger, but similar, and I hope it will be as easy to keep alive. This is often how it happens for me. I set out with an intention, but plans be damned, the most interesting plants are the ones that I stumble into by luck or happy accident.

I hope you’ve been having a joyful and rejuvenating holiday thus far! Posting will resume regularly from here on out. Happy New Year!

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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11 thoughts on “Laser Ginger: A Botanical Mystery Solved

  1. I planted some ginger in a pot and it sprouted a leaf that is about two feet high. When is it ready to dig up??? I planted it about 6 months ago.

  2. This is a great malaprop — I love it! Imagine the uses: “He was convicted of a laser assault charge, not first-degree.” And of course, there are many other laser plants: laser celandine, for instance. And you could travel to the Laser Antilles.

  3. The picture is NOT of Alpinia officinarum or lesser ginger. It is neither a mispelling.
    The picture is that of finger root/ finger root ginger- known as Bosenbergia rotunda. It is used in the cuisines of China, Thailans and nIndonesia and also in SEA countries. It is also grown as an ornamental plant.

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