Welcome back to the Spice Cabinet series. Today we explore Turmeric. If Marvel Comics were to create a superhero in the spice world for their next blockbuster movie, it would undoubtedly be Turmeric; “the Golden Goddess.” The popularity of turmeric has exploded over the ages for its extensive list of health benefits which have been practiced for centuries in the Eastern part of the world. As the West attempts to catch up with what the East has known, turmeric has become a staple in both medicine and spice cabinets around the world.
Turmeric hails from curcuma longa, a leafy green plant which belongs to the ginger family. Its orange color comes from the root of the curcuma longa which is boiled or steamed, then dried and ground into turmeric powder which is utilized in both culinary and medicinal uses. Turmeric was, and is, harvested in South India and Indonesia. Although its current popularity is astounding, Turmeric is not new to this acclaim. Turmeric has been around for over 4,500 years as evidenced by residue on ceramics discovered in New Delhi around 2,500 BCE. This wonder drug made its way West during the evolution of the spice trade. Marco Polo referred to it in his travel journals while in India: “There is also vegetable that has all the properties of the true saffron, as well as the color, an yet is not really saffron. It is held in great estimation and being an ingredient in all their dishes, it bears, on that account, a high price.” Turmeric was highly sacred to the indigenous people of India and known by many names. “Gauri,” meaning “the one whose face is light and shining” exemplifies how Turmeric’s vibrant yellow coloring was sought after and revered. Writer, David E. Sopher states, “In Indian classical literature, similar erotic associations are attached to yellow blossoms, while a woman is considered particularly seductive when her face and body are a shining yellow.” In many Indian marriage ceremonies, even today, a turmeric paste is smeared on the engaged couple days before the marriage to ward of evil and bring prosperity.
Turmeric holds great importance in the ancient Indian holistic health system, Ayurveda. It is inhaled, ingested, and applied topically for a multitude of ailments. In general, turmeric promotes balance, healing, and restoration within the body and mind. Following in this perspective, the western world has adopted the infinite beneficial properties turmeric beholds. Turmeric has been associated with relief of arthritis, joint pain, headaches, depression, cold, digestion problems, diabetes, crohns, and colitis. It has been shown to lower cholesterol, delay the advancement of alzheimer’s and cancer. This list is by no means definitive and as the scientific world begins to make increased inquiries, it is clear that turmeric will continue to express its healing powers.
In cooking, turmeric’s most obvious contribution is Curry which is a gift unto itself. However, turmeric is more versatile than one might initially believe. Its warm, earthy, and peppery flavors add depth and richness to sauces, spice rubs, soups and stews. Roasted vegetables, fish, and poultry take on a vibrant aroma and more intense flavor when turmeric is added. Turmeric is responsible for the color of many foods including mustards, cake mixes, and cheese. It is advised to add turmeric early into your food as you cook it to allow its flavors to develop and release.
Although not a lot of evidence points to extensive use of turmeric in Italian cooking, it has been cited as being combined with the precious and expensive saffron as a way of elongating its life. However, with turmeric increasing in popularity, chefs are experimenting with adding turmeric to more traditional recipes adding another dimension to the flavor. One of which is turmeric pasta dough. The addition of turmeric not only adds a beautiful color but a dynamic burst of earth and pepper which would suit well with seafood or vegetables.
Turmeric has a prominent place in my spice cabinet as I often reach for it to season my food, but more often to make an herbal morning tonic to start the day with a cup of invigoration. If not in the morning, then I brew a relaxing cup of Moon Milk to ease my way to sleep. Turmeric will not be going anywhere anytime soon. As yoga studios, concept juice bars, and health food stores continue to pop up world wide, I am intrigued to see which neighborhood trattorias incorporate this wonder drug into their classic Italian dishes.
Carolyn White was born into an Irish-English American family in Brewster, Massachusetts. After 18 years in education as a teacher and counselor, Carolyn made a life-altering decision to change careers and venture into the culinary world. During the summer of 2017 she staged at Coppa Enoteca in Boston where she focused on the art of pasta making. In December 2018, Carolyn was accepted to Alice Waters’ Rome Sustainable Food Project and moved to Rome in March 2018. There she studied Roman food and culture, sustainability practices, and cooked for the residents of the American Academy in Rome. Carolyn returned home to Boston in July of 2018 where she currently works as a private chef and caterer.