Turmeric, with its bright yellow color, has been used as a coloring agent for food and fabric, as a medicine and for flavoring since 600 BC. Its name comes from the Latin terra merita meaning “meritorious earth” referring to its ground color, but in many languages turmeric is simply named “yellow root.” In the Middle Ages it was called “Indian saffron” and in 1280, Marco Polo described turmeric as “a vegetable with the properties of saffron.” However, in comparison to expensive saffron threads, turmeric is one of the cheapest spices available. Maintaining its coloring properties longer than its flavor, turmeric has been used to give a brilliant yellow color to wools, basketry, cottons and silk. In Asian cultures, it is also valued as a skin dye for tradition and health. Indonesian bridal couples color their arms with it for wedding ceremonies and Malaysian women coat the skin of their stomachs with turmeric after childbirth plus apply it as an ointment to the cut cord of the baby.
Part of the ginger family, the spicy part of turmeric is also its rhizome or underground root, but in comparison to ginger, it is smaller, rounder and has a brighter yellow-orange flesh. A tender perennial in colder climates, it makes a handsome potted plant for a sunny window which can be placed outdoors in summer in a hot spot, but keep it well watered. It has long stemmed bright green lily-like leaves which in tropical hot, moist climates produce a conical cluster of pale yellow flowers. It is propagated by division of the rhizome which can be harvested in late fall as soon as the leaves die back, kept intact, air dried and then placed in a punctured plastic bag in a cool, dry place until ready to divide and replant in spring.
Inconsequential in Western cuisine, turmeric is a must for Indian curry powder, is used in the East and Middle East as a condiment and culinary dye and is also used in spice blends in the Caribbean, North Africa and Indonesia. The flavor resembles a combination of ginger and pepper adding a warm note to recipes as well as an enticing yellow hue. Turmeric is a classic addition to chutneys, pickles and relishes plus used to flavor and color prepared mustard as well as butter and cheese. It is also used in many fish dishes including soups, because it successfully masks fishy odors and flavors. Begin by adding a pinch to vegetables, especially carrots, potatoes and cauliflower, or combine with butter and drizzle over the vegetables or pasta. Turmeric also works well with chicken, eggs, rice and sauces. Turmeric has long been used for healing too. It contains a compound, curcumin, which gives the yellow pigment and is a natural COX-2 inhibitor and is thus a powerful anti-inflammatory for treatment of a number of conditions including arthritis. It also eases indigestion, is an antimicrobial with action against a broad range of bacteria, fungi and viruses, plus has antioxidant properties that prevent cell damage that can lead to degenerative diseases such as heart disease, stroke, cataracts, Alzheimer’s and cancer.
Available in Asian markets, fresh or frozen turmeric root
has peak flavor in comparison even to
dried rhizomes that are ground as needed.
Store powdered turmeric in a cool, dark place
in an airtight container to protect from oxidation and sunlight
1tsp butter or olive oil
1c long grain white rice
1/2tsp ground turmeric
2c chicken stock
Melt butter or oil in skillet, stir in rice and turmeric and sauté until grains appear transparent around the edges. Add stock plus the rind and juice of the lemon. Bring to a boil then reduce heat and steam 15-20 mins or until rice is tender. Serve with Chicken Curry.
4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
2 cloves mashed garlic
1 1/2tsp ground turmeric
1tsp ground cinnamon
1tsp ground coriander
1tsp ground cumin
1Tbs fresh minced lemongrass
1/4tsp ground black pepper
dash cayenne pepper
1/3c unsweetened coconut milk
1tsp Thai fish sauce
Heat oil in large skillet, add chicken and sauté until golden. Add garlic and spices and sauté until ingredients are fragrant, then add coconut milk, water and fish sauce. Cover and simmer 10-20 mins until chicken is cooked through
“And God said, See I have given you every herb
that yields seed which is on the face of the earth. . . “