Everywhere I turned, I saw turmeric.
The ‘super’ food was in the news and on restaurant menus, frequently served raw and cold in golden shakes, fresh pressed juices and smoothies. As a chef of Indian heritage, this puzzled me.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) has been used in India for millennia, particularly in Hindu culture and religious ritual. In parts of the country, married women’s foreheads are adorned with dots of turmeric and vermilion to signify their prosperity and fertility. The yellow root is also used in Ayurvedic medicine, as a dye (watch out, it’ll stain your counters and clothes for good), and a skin cleanser. The day before her wedding, a bride’s body is traditionally slathered with turmeric paste (later washed off with hot water) to soften and purify her skin. And of course, turmeric is integral to our cuisine.
The plant is said to have originated in South Asia, and India is both its largest producer and consumer! A member of the ginger (Zingiberacaea) family, it is aromatic when fresh and often eaten stir-fried with vegetables or quickly pickled. Its leaves are used for wrapping and steaming foods. But what no Indian kitchen lacks is a supply of dried, ground turmeric.
Oddly, curry powder, which contains the root, is not Indian but an invention of the British who colonized the country. It became associated with Indian food, giving rise to the misleading term ‘curry’. As for curry powder, we simply don’t use it! Turmeric isn’t even added to our spice blends. It stands alone and plays a role in the seasoning process, stirred separately in hot oil to complement spices like mustard, cumin and asafetida (hing).
Hot! That was my “aha!” moment.Impressed by an ingredient’s health benefits and eager to squeeze out its goodness, we label it ‘super’ but do we take enough time to understand its history, properties and subtleties? Do we just end up overusing or using it wrongly? I watched it happen with kale, it sure happened with soy, and now it was happening to this spice I grew up with. That evening, when my Peruvian friend Ana described blending fresh turmeric root into ‘healthy’ smoothies, I blurted, “Then you’re not really getting much from it because turmeric loves heat.”
The flavor, aroma and nutrients of spices are released by warming. Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, has a low bioavailability making it difficult for our bodies to absorb. We get very little of its healing properties from a raw smoothie or juice or by swallowing it as a pill or powder. But turmeric warmed in oil or water? Now the fat-soluble rhizome, packed with antiseptic, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-carcinogenic and preservative benefits, can enter the blood stream quickly and stay in the body longer.
In India, the spice is reserved for savory dishes and medicinal beverages. And it doesn’t turn everything yellow. In fact, thanks to its antioxidant nature, it can enhance the natural color of vegetables. So while potatoes and chicken take on turmeric’s yellowness, greens like spinach stay vibrantly green, even if slightly overcooked while yellowy butternut squash becomes a gorgeous orange.
Though Indians use turmeric when cooking vegetables, meat and lentils, they prefer the more delicate flavor of saffron for desserts, so it’s ironic that the root has been labeled ‘Indian saffron’ by our southern neighbor, Sri Lanka. There and in parts of the Middle East, the rhizome is indeed used in sweets like Sfouf, a delicate, semolina cake. My Lebanese friend Nadia’s version, topped with crunchy sesame seeds, is moist and yellow, with unlikely but pleasant hints of turmeric and powdered anise in every bite.So even if Indian food is not your thing, you can still use turmeric hot. My friend Alan in Paris has stirred half a teaspoon of powdered turmeric into his pasta sauces for years. You can do the same, adding powdered or freshly grated turmeric to warm lentils, meat stews or vegetable sautés. When Ana isn’t making smoothies, she cooks a traditional Peruvian rice dish for her family. Arroz a la Jardinera combines turmeric powder, garlic, onions, Basmati rice, red bell peppers and mushrooms for a “healthy side to serve with roast chicken or salmon.”
And the next time you are sautéing your favorite greens or broccoli in olive oil, toss in some turmeric and minced garlic for extra goodness. I like panfrying salmon that way too. I cut it into chunks and sprinkle both sides with salt and powdered turmeric before searing it in hot oil or clarified butter. When it’s cooked, I add a squeeze of lemon juice and fresh cilantro.
Turmeric is great at keeping you healthy but it also works wonders when you are sick with a cold and cough. It soothes and foments the throat, reducing coughing and speeding up healing. This winter, my mother Meera prescribed a turmeric honey tisane that had me feeling better immediately. When I told my friend Libby about it, she said she always kept some on hand, ready to use. She combines equal parts turmeric powder and liquid honey in a wide mouthed Mason jar and refrigerates it. For one serving, she pours boiling water into a mug and stirs in a tablespoon of the mix, sipping it as hot as she can. Mom used to give my brother and me the kid-friendly version when we were growing up: a cup of boiled milk sweetened with sugar, with a heaped teaspoon of turmeric stirred in. There’s nothing else so comforting!
Today I teach Indian cooking in Los Angeles. In every class, I mention the health benefits of turmeric root. But after my recent epiphany, I also stress that my students should heat it up to unlock what truly makes this ancient spice super!
Kaumudi Marathe is a writer turned chef. In 2007, she opened a catering company and cooking school in Los Angeles to shatter the myth that all Indian food is curry. Her food memoir, “We are the Hero,” is out this September. You can follow her on Instagram or on Twitter.
Photo by Steven Jackson CC BY