This is turmeric – the golden spice whose history in Indian cuisine is as timeless as its value in Ayurvedic medicine. Over the past few years, turmeric has become increasingly popular in the Western world due to various discoveries relating to its health benefits. From coffee lattes and tea to food supplements to dyes, turmeric can now be found in many different forms.
Most Indian dishes include turmeric to give that iconic 'curry' colour, flavour and aroma. Be careful when you use it though as too much will give your food a slightly bitter and chalky aftertaste. Of course, you need to keep your clothes safe too as turmeric is a wonder spice, but it’s also a nightmare for stains!
Turmeric (Curcuma Longa) is a tropical rhizome native to South Asia. It’s a member of the ginger family with thick finger-like roots, a little like root ginger in appearance — well, apart from being smaller and having bright orange flesh.
The turmeric plant doesn’t set seed but is propagated by root (or rhizome) cuttings. The roots are boiled then dried in large ovens, or under the roasting hot sun. Once dried, they are ground to create the wonderful deep orange powder that we call turmeric. It's also known as Haldi, Haridra, or even Indian saffron, which is a very different spice taken from the stamens of the crocus flower. Although much more expensive, saffron doesn’t have the same properties or flavour as turmeric.
Turmeric powder is used extensively in Indian cooking. It is also often used as a colourant. The spice has a warm, peppery taste with musky, earthy undertones. The most common way it is used is in powder form, but in some regions where it grows locally (such as in Maharashtra), the leaves of the plant are often used as a wrap for steaming food, particularly fish, as it cooks. This method imparts a distinct aromatic flavour. The fresh root can also be used like ginger, and in the Far East fresh turmeric pickle is a common dish. Even the flowers of the turmeric plant can be eaten and are used as an exotic and decorative vegetable.
In traditional Indian remedies, turmeric has been prized for over 6,000 years. It plays a part in many Indian dishes where its regular use both heals and protects. It's thought that it was introduced into cooking due to its anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. Even today most Indian fish marinades begin with a light coating of turmeric to rid the fish of any bacteria. It can be made into a paste for the topical treatment of cuts and burns, and is also used to make a warm tonic with milk to remedy sore throats and colds (my dad used to mix turmeric into warm milk and drink it all the time - apparently as an all-round drink that did good things to your body). In India, skin ailments such as eczema and dermatitis are also treated topically with turmeric concoctions, and it's even used as a cosmetic, as it improves the condition of your skin.
But don't think this is all just folklore. Modern scientific research has found that turmeric’s high levels of anti-inflammatory agents, including potent antioxidants, can protect the body against free radical (rogue) cells. The National Institute of Health has funded numerous studies over the past few years to assess turmeric's potential ability to prevent and treat a wide range of diseases — including certain cancers. There are lots of interesting articles out there focussing on the benefits of turmeric and they’re well worth reading.
The silver-bullet compound in turmeric is called curcumin, and this is the element of turmeric which gives the root that vibrant gold colour and is responsible for the aromatic qualities of the spice. But curcumin is so much more than a flavouring and colourant; it’s curcumin which makes turmeric so highly prized for both its healing and preventative properties.
Turmeric is almost certainly the most researched plant in existence, and curcumin, as the primary active ingredient, has already been the subject of 5,600 published biomedical studies. Science has confirmed curcumin as being as effective as 14 widely used drugs, but without the side effects. This is even more interesting when you consider that these pharmaceutical drugs are each designed to target just one disease, but have around 75 known side effects. Turmeric, on the other hand, has only side benefits. The fact that it has been used safely in Ayurvedic medicine for 6,000 years speaks for itself.
I would say though, that when it comes to taking advantage of the health-giving powers of turmeric by regularly using it in recipes, it’s important to also include some black pepper. This is because black pepper, or to be precise, a chemical compound of black pepper called piperine, helps your body to absorb curcumin in sufficient quantities to get maximum health benefits. By including ground black pepper in the same recipe as turmeric you will be boosting your body’s absorption of curcumin by 2000%.
That said, while daily doses of turmeric from your favourite curry are great, it really takes a higher daily dose of the active ingredient, curcumin, to deliver the benefits reported from scientific studies. These daily doses are something that could only be delivered from a natural supplement. If this is something you would consider, a turmeric with added black pepper supplement would do the job nicely.
From Ancient Medicine to Modern Health Kick
I do love how folklore becomes hip and trendy and it now seems that turmeric drinks are all the 'spice rage'. Juicing has started to reignite the wonder that is turmeric. It seems that when taking turmeric in a drink, there’s no need for the addition of black pepper — it’s only necessary when using it in food or as a supplement for health purposes. I love that this yellow root is starting to get recognised for its super powers and it's no longer just me raving about it.
If you are an avid juicer then check out this article on how humble little turmeric has reinvented itself and made its way to the shelves in Selfridges.
All that from one spice. So yes, it stains your t-shirt but that's about the only bad thing you can say about it!
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