Turmeric is an unforgettable spice. Use it once and you'll always remember it's vibrant colour (especially if you happen to accidentally get in on your kitchen counter). Indians use turmeric liberally but if this golden spice is new to you keep reading to discover its versatility, how to use it in cooking and why it's considered a superfood.
Believed to have originated in India over 5,000 years ago, turmeric has long been used for cooking and medical purposes, as well as a textile dye. In Hindi, it is called haldi.
Turmeric is the root of the curcuma longa plant. Its flesh has an intense orange colour that becomes yellow when dried. It is a spice present in nearly every Indian dish but can impart a medicinal flavour to food when used in large quantities. That's why chefs warn that “you should see it but not taste it.”
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Turmeric is the golden child of Ayurveda, traditional Indian medicine. It is revered for its extensive health benefits that stem from curcumin, the compound responsible for turmeric’s vibrant yellow pigment.
Curcumin is a well known for its antiseptic properties and is commonly applied to wounds. Indians also use it in pre-wedding rituals and applied to the face as a mask.
Turmeric was 'discovered' by Marco Polo on his journey to China in 1280, since then it's been hailed as the poor man's saffron. However, the only two things the spices have in common is their bright colour.
Turmeric: Uses in Cooking
In India turmeric is always added at the beginning of the cooking process and sautéed with other aromatics such as onions, ginger and garlic. This allows the release of curcumin, which is fat soluble.
Another popular use for turmeric in cooking is golden milk. Considered an anti-inflammatory elixir, this drink is used to treat everything from colds to arthritis. Here's a must-try recipe.
Although it is traditionally found in Indian curries, turmeric features in a variety of American dishes and condiments. Do you find it hard to believe? Turmeric is what colours American processed cheese, mustard, butter, yellow cake mix, popcorn and dozens of other products.
Turmeric is beloved in Iranian cuisine, where it is commonly combined with black pepper, cinnamon and cardamom in a spice mix called advieh. Want to make it at home? Try this easy recipe from Aashpazi:
Moroccans also use turmeric in cooking. They combine it with saffron in harira, a soup eaten at the end of Ramadan. Also, turmeric is one of the spices in the famous mixture called ras-el-hanout. Try this recipe from Pitmaster X:
Of course, turmeric is responsible for the colour of curry powder, a spice mix popular with the British. You can use curry powder to make a number of dishes including these from our repertoire:
Turmeric is very popular in Malaysia, where cooks use it to flavour a chicken dish called kapitan. It is used in the Sri Lanka's Colombo powder.
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Most turmeric comes from two places in India: Alleppey and Madras. Although the latter is more famous, you should stick to Alleppey turmeric. This varietal is known to two times as much curcumin than the Madras variety.
In its powder form, turmeric will keep well in an airtight container. As with all spices, be sure to keep it away from heat and light. Fresh turmeric keeps well in the freezer. You can grind it, as needed.
Numerous studies have categorized turmeric as a super food. Indeed, the spice has been lauded for its anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties found in curcumin. Turmeric is also used to treat a host of diseases, from respiratory illness to liver troubles and easing arthritis. Having said that, the curcumin content of turmeric is not all that high, so you might need to do more than just sprinkle the odd teaspoon over your curry, such as taking a supplement that contains significant amounts of curcumin. Unfortunately, curcumin is poorly absorbed into the blood stream, but this absorption can be improved if you consume black pepper alongside it. Curcumin also has powerful antioxidant effects, neutralising free radicals and stimulating the body’s antioxidant enzymes to help combat ageing and a number of serious diseases. You can find more information on these scientific studies in the book Healing Spices by Bharat B. Aggarwal, PhD and Debora Yost.