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Incense Ingredient

Galangal

Japanese: San Na


Photo by Stephanie Tietjen

Kaempferia galanga L.

Aromatic Ginger (Maraba)

San na should not be confused with Gao Liang Jiang or Rhizoma Alpiniae Officinari (Lesser Galangal) or it's cousin Alpinia Galangal (Greater Galangal).

In Sri Lanka it's used for a few special dishes like famous Festive Biriani, and used in pork curries. In Thai cooking it's used in many fish curries.

In Indonesia the rhizome is given for food poisoning, tetanus, mouth ulcers, coughs and colds. If chewed and swallowed it is said to be a hallucinogen with no recorded ill effects.

Galangal was a favorite of Aleister Crowley, the English occultist, and the abbess Hildegard von Bingen mentions Galangal in her book "Natural Science" written around 1200 c.e. It is also a primary herb in both Ayurvedic & Tibetan medicine. But it is not clear which Galangal was used. It's quite possible varieties were often confused as we've seen with other herbs like Jatamansi and Valeriana Wallichi. Ancient physicians typically used what was available in their areas, and traders may have easily made substitutions or even dilutions. This continues today, where cassias and cinnamons are often diluted with pecan shells to increase profits. What may very well have been the difference between an excellent physician and a poor one, was their ability to discriminate herbs accurately.

Kaempferia galanga is sometimes mistakenly called lesser galangal, which is also a rhizome of the Zingiberaceae family. The leaves grow thickly to about 15 cm (6 in) in height under the right conditions. It bears small, fragile, orchid-like flowers, white with purple labellum, fragrant but very short-lived, virtually 'dissolving' in a few hours.

When burned as an incense it is thought to increase energy and overcome exhaustion. melancholy, and sadness. Many Tibetan incense formulas use Galangal, especially in formulas to promote awareness, overcome exhaustion, reduce fever and indigestion.

Because Galangal is a member of the Ginger or Zingiberaceae family, there is possible confusion with it and turmeric. There is no question about Galangal being a primary incense ingredient in several traditions, it is the fragrant variety of ginger. Turmeric is also a common ingredient in traditional incense formulas, and from my research, one that was often substituted with various Galangals. Even today botanist disagree on classifications. Turmeric is not mentioned or listed by Kikyoko Morita, Suzanne Fisher Rizzi, or David Pybus in their books on incense. Niether Baieido or Shoyeido lists turmeric in their ingredients. Other Japanese, and Korean incenses do use turmeric. Rizzi lists both Alpinia galangal and Alpinia officinarum under the same classification, and Pybus lists A. officinarum, but his illustration appears to be either A. galangal (if colors are correct) or Kaempheria galangal.

One thing we can be sure of is that Baieido uses Kaempheria galangal.

By David Oller with information provided by Kyozaburo Nakata of Baieido.

© Copyright 2001 David Oller & Kyozaburo Nakata