Turmeric — with its brilliant golden-yellow color and floral, warming, slightly musky taste — is one of the primary flavors in Indian and Southeast Asian cooking. It is what gives curry powder its bright yellow color and has been used as both a spice and a medicinal herb in India for thousands of years.
Recently turmeric has become one of the darlings of the food world. Turmeric tea, turmeric milk, turmeric lattes, smoothies and turmeric-spiced foods of all kinds are featured on menus and in packaged foods.
DJ Rekha, a New York City-based DJ and cultural producer of South Asian descent, recently spoke with me about the spice.
"I find it highly infuriating to see turmeric held up as an elixir to everything," she says. "Growing up, turmeric was at the heart of all my mom's cooking. It was in the masala spice box right next to the salt and pepper. It was a marker of identity. A totally ordinary thing to cook with, just like salt."
When asked if she thinks it's disrespectful to use turmeric in non-traditional ways, DJ Rekha was quick to say no.
“I don't believe in traditional food. Food is always evolving,” she says. “But this new idea about turning turmeric into something mystical, exotic and magical is absurd. It feels like colonialism, as if natural food companies and high-profile chefs today are saying, 'We discovered it and now we can profit off of it.’ "
Why has turmeric hit it so big?
First, there's the color. In the dead of winter, who can resist its marigold orange-yellow shot of brightness? Turmeric adds its sunshine bright hue to any food it's cooked with, including boiling water. I experimented with turmeric in cakes, rice and vegetable dishes and every one of them tasted — and looked — more vibrant thanks to the addition of turmeric.
And then there are the health claims. If you believe everything you read, turmeric is the cure-all for whatever ails you.
Nik Sharma, author of “Season” and “The Flavor Equation,” who grew up in the western Indian city of Mumbai and now lives in California, agrees with DJ Rekha.
"There are so many misconceptions about turmeric," he says. "People think it will keep you healthy and young forever. But no one ingredient can ever do that."
Turmeric is a dry spice that comes from the turmeric plant, a member of the ginger family. Native to India and Southeast Asia, the root is used fresh and dried. The root contains a chemical called curcumin, which is said to support health in many ways and is the pigment responsible for turmeric's vibrant color.
Turmeric contains beta-carotene, vitamin C, potassium and zinc. Many people take turmeric supplements and oils for inflammation, joint pain, heart disease and high cholesterol. Others claim it works to alleviate depression and heartburn and improve memory.
But hardcore scientific evidence about turmeric's benefits is difficult to find. Be aware that studies show you would have to eat or drink an awful lot of turmeric on a daily basis to see any results.
Fresh turmeric root, available in Asian markets and health food stores, can be used like fresh ginger root. Peel away the skin and chop, mince, or thinly slice and use in stir-fries, curries, soups, juices and more. Fresh turmeric root has a more peppery flavor than dried turmeric.
According to Sana Javeri Kadri, owner of Diaspora Co., you need to shop for turmeric that has not been sitting on supermarket shelves for years and lost all its color and flavor.
"Five to seven-year-old turmeric has no active curcumin left in it, but fresh turmeric, where you can get between 4 to 5.5% curcumin, is the anti-inflammatory good stuff,” she says. “Consuming it in powdered form vs. fresh form is actually easier for your body to digest, and consuming it with a pinch of fresh black pepper (for its active compound piperine!) and heated with a little fat (ghee, milk, butter, you name it!) is the best way to maximize its bio-availability."
One of the very best brands of turmeric I've ever tasted comes from Diaspora, a woman-owned spice business. Diaspora's turmeric is organically grown and comes from a 3rd generation turmeric farm in India. To order, click here.
Cauliflower, carrots and sweet potatoes are roasted in a hot oven to give them a slight golden color and then added to turmeric, ginger, cinnamon and spiced coconut milk.
This is a warming, deeply satisfying winter dish. Serve with basmati rice.
*Garam masala is a spice blend commonly used in curries, lentil dishes and other Indian foods. You can find it in grocery stores and Indian markets. Although every recipe differs, garam masala is generally made from a blend of cinnamon stick, mace or nutmeg, peppercorns, cloves, coriander seeds and cardamom. You can make your own by toasting 1 to 2 tablespoons of each spice (or in any combination you like) in a dry skillet for several minutes, cool and grind in a blender or spice grinder.
Turmeric is used in two ways in this spicy Indian-inspired lentil dish. The dal (or lentils) are simmered with dry turmeric and water and then a spicy mixture of sautéed turmeric, cumin seeds, cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks and chili pepper are sautéed in ghee (clarified butter) or vegetable oil and made into a topping with fresh ginger, red onion, tomatoes and cilantro. The spiced topping is then swirled into the cooked dal.
Serve hot, sprinkled with fresh cilantro, on top of basmati rice.
Serves 4 to 6.
*Look for lentils, cardamom pods and other Indian spices in Indian groceries or online. One favorite mail-order spot is Kalustyan's in New York City.
Turmeric adds a golden yellow hue and a hint of musk to this simple cake. The cake is baked in a loaf pan and can be made in less than 30 minutes; it will keep covered in the refrigerator for at least five days.
If you can find blood oranges — in season all winter — the cake is a gorgeous contrast of pink-red against the orange-gold of the turmeric. Serve for breakfast with yogurt or as a dessert with chai or coffee.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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