Our kitchen is always filled with a large array of spices and the vivid golden colour of turmeric is always present on our spice rack. In the last five years turmeric has seen an amazing explosion in popularity. From trendy coffee shops offering ‘golden milk’ to turmeric supplements and the availability of fresh turmeric in almost all our local health food shops; turmeric seems to be everywhere. The Internet is overflowing with websites making incredible claims about its healing powers. We have been filtering through the noise to see if we can peel back the truths and the implications of the turmeric explosion.
Some background information
Turmeric was first domesticated in Indonesia and Southern India almost 5,000 years ago. In India where it makes up 50% of all curry powders it is also used for it’s powerful yellow pigment as a symbol of purity in religious ceremonies. In the Ayurvedic medicine it has been used to treat all manner of ailments for thousands of years. India is the largest producer and also the largest consumer of turmeric. In the West the primary use of turmeric has been as a natural food colourant. In the US most turmeric is imported and used to colour mustard.
Turmeric is the underground stem or rhizome of an herbaceous plant in the ginger family, Curcuma longa. In it’s fresh form it looks like small fingers, very similar to ginger. Fresh turmeric has become widely available in this country, as the demand has increased. It has a much stronger, earthier pungency than in it’s dried form. Freshly harvested turmeric is ‘cured’ before being dried and powdered. The curing process involves boiling the turmeric in water for 45 minutes, which gives it a more even colour, removes unwanted microbes and the earthy aroma. It is then dried either in the sun or under heaters until it turns brittle so it can be ground into a powder. It is worth noting that many of the active ingredients and flavours of turmeric are UV sensitive so it is one of the spices that it is better dried under artificial heat.
The recent upsurge in turmeric is not so much to do with its use in cooking but as a health food. A quick online search will provide you with a huge amount of health claims for turmeric. This isn’t news to anyone who grew up with an Indian heritage where ‘yellow milk’ has long been the cure for almost all ailments. However in recent years these age old ‘mothers cures’ have been backed up by a lot of solid scientific evidence. Curcumin is the main active ingredient in turmeric and it has demonstrated a remarkable variety of beneficial healing activities. These include antioxidant, anti-arthritic, anti-mutagenic, anti-tumor promotion, antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral activities. No wonder it has been the ‘cure all’ remedy for so long. Curcumin has been the main focus in scientific studies but there are over 200 other active ingredients in turmeric and the way they all interact together is very important. Most turmeric supplements only give you the curcumin and eliminate all the other active ingredients and oils that exist in the fresh turmeric root. Companies also use a lot of nasty chemicals (like acetone, ethyl acetate, methanol, ethanol) to extract the curcuma for supplements and colourings in non-organic products. If you are going to use turmeric supplements, always get organic and with make sure it has a high percentage of curcumin. It is also worth noting that curcumin can be difficult for your body to assimilate. Turmeric dissolves in fat so eating it with milk or in curries is best where ghee is used. Also eating turmeric with black pepper will enhance the absorption capacity of the intestines and will make it a lot easier for your body to digest and get the maximum out of the turmeric. Pukka herbs have a great turmeric supplement that is organic and naturally extracted; they even put in some pepper.
Keep it Fresh
The best way to eat turmeric and benefit from its wonderful qualities is to eat it fresh. Fresh turmeric can be found in health food stores and Indian and Asian markets. Like with fresh ginger, choose firm rhizomes and avoid soft and dried ones. Once the turmeric has been cut, it’s best to store it in the fridge in a airtight container, it will keep for a week or two. Although India is the world’s largest producer, in recent years the fresh turmeric we found in our organic shop comes from Peru. This is because Peru used to grow a lot of ginger but recently China has flooded the market with cheap ginger driving the price down, so the Peruvian farmers have now begun to grow high quality turmeric for the Western market.
The main reason we eat turmeric is for its flavour, it’s a key ingredient for our Indian, Moroccan and Caribbean dishes, but we also increase its intake if we are unwell. Turmeric milk is wonderful if you have a cold and Muriel took turmeric supplements when she was suffering from back pain to reduce the inflammation. It is a wonderful spice with deep earthy flavours and some quite remarkable health properties, there is no doubt it will always play a key role in our kitchen.
Red Lentil Dhal
This is our favourite dhal recipe, we use fresh turmeric whenever possible and always use plenty of ghee and black pepper.
1 1/2 Cups of Red lentils
2 inch piece of fresh turneric
2 inch piece of fresh ginger
2 cloves of garlic
2 tbsp ghee (or processed coconut oil)
2 tsp black mustard seeds
2 tsp cumin seeds
2 cinnamon sticks
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
2 tsp garam masala
Thoroughly rinse the red lentils by covering them in water and stirring them around with your hands then draining them, repeat this 4-5 times until the water is no longer really cloudy. Now peel and chop the fresh turmeric, ginger and garlic and blend together in a pestle and mortar to get the oils and flavours working. Next melt the ghee in a pan and add the mustard and cumin seeds and the cinnamon sticks and fry. Once they begin to pop add the fresh ground spice paste and cook for a further 10 seconds, making sure they don’t catch and burn. Quickly add the lentils and cover with 500ml of water, then add the salt and pepper. Bring to the boil and then leave to simmer for approximately 15 minutes. Now remove from the heat, add the garam masala and then cover and leave for the flavours to infuse for 10 minutes before serving.
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Here are some useful links that we used in our research if you wish to explore turmeric further.