A piquant, spicy, vegetable studded Indian curry. A fragrant, grilled, yellow hued Thai satay chicken skewer. Slow simmered, lemony North African lamb tangine. All of these culinary classics have in common the spice called turmeric.
Turmeric is an earthy, mustardy, peppery spice that is used in myriad global cuisines. It’s a staple of Indian foods, especially curries and dals. You’ll find it in North African foods, marrying with cumin and other spices to flavor stews and tangines. Turmeric is at home in the Middle East where it adds a pungent note to spiced rice and khoresht.
This spice is a rhizome, or root-like plant that grows underground. It can be used fresh, much like its cousin ginger. More frequently it is dried and pounded into powder, which keeps for a longer time than does the fresh form.
Turmeric is native to the forests of India, where it has long been used as a flavoring, a dye (it makes a vibrant yellow color), and in Ayurvedic medicine. The explorer Marco Polo noted, during his travels to Southeast Asia, that its qualities as both a spice and a textile dye were similar to the very expensive saffron that Europeans used.
Turmeric gives many yellow colored mustards their bright hue. It is sometimes used in place of annatto to color cheeses, butter and margarine, and in prepared chicken broth. As with many spices, the fresh root is more vivid and pungent tasting than the powdered form.
In Indian Ayurvedic medicine, turmeric was used to strengthen and warm the body, improve digestion, and strengthen the liver. Ancient Hawaiians grew the root and used it for the prevention of infections. Today, Western medicine is rediscovering the anti-inflammatory properties of the yellow rhizome. Tests are ongoing, but it appears that it could protect against certain cancers, as it slows down the growth of cancerous cells. It shows promise in helping treat arthritis and liver diseases, as well as diabetes.
Turmeric adds its singular zingy flavor to anything you add it to. Try using the fresh sliced form in Thai soups and curries. Chop it up and add it to potato salad or carrot soup. Many curries call for dried, powdered turmeric. It also pairs especially well with cauliflower. It’s beneficial to your health, tried and true for thousands of years, versatile, and most of all- turmeric is distinctively delicious!