The Golden Spice of Life?

DSCN1055Widely touted as a “superfood,” the world’s healthiest spice, or the “golden spice of life,” turmeric has been in use for at least four thousand years. The deeply colored yellow-orange spice is what gives Indian curry its distinctive yellow color and savory flavor. The taste might be considered somewhat bitter and peppery. Turmeric is not a cure-all, though it has been touted as an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and even an anti-cancer agent.

First how do you pronounce it? Most people drop the first “r,” enunciating TOO-mer-ik, but it is also considered correct to say TUR-mer-ik or even TYOO-mer-ik.

Where does it come from?

turmeric_varietiesTurmeric, also known as Indian saffron, the poor man’s saffron, haridra, or haldi. The powder is obtained from the rhizome (root stock) of Curcuma longa, a perennial herbaceous plant that is related to ginger. The plant, a member of the Zingiberaceae family, grows in India and tropical regions of Southern Asia.

Over thirty different varieties are known, with names such as Alleppey Finger, Erode and Nizamabad Bulb. The fresh rhizomes are boiled, then drained and dried in the sun for up to two weeks, before being ground to obtain the powdered golden spice.

The active ingredient of turmeric is the compound curcumin (typically comprising 3 to 6% of turmeric), along with volatile oils and resins. The volatile oils enhance the flavor and aroma of the spice. Note that curcumin is not related to cumin, another spice used in Indian cuisine — that comes from the seeds of a different plant. Chemically, curcumin consists of curcuminoids, complex compounds which are linear diarylheptanoids.

A Versatile Spice with Multiple Uses:

Turmeric is one of the main ingredients of curry – the others being coriander, cumin, fenugreek and chili pepper, with the possible addition of garlic, ginger, asafetida, cardamom, nutmeg or black pepper . Note that the term ‘curry’ does not refer to a single spice, nor a spice of uniform consistency; rather it is a Western invention, dating back to the British occupation of India.

Six-spices-indianMore authentic Indian recipes do not call for curry powder, but rather for complex combinations of spices, such as turmeric, cumin, coriander, ginger, garlic and asafetida (hing), and black cardamom, stored in a traditional spice tray, as shown in the picture to the right. (You can find these gorgeous stainless steel Masala Dabba spice trays, for about $20 online).

These spices are often sautéed with ghee or oil to bring out the full flavor of the spices. Vegetarians might try this Chickpea Curry recipe on AllRecipes.com. You can sample more recipes of Indian cuisine involving turmeric, such as Kofta Curry, in the cookbook Six Spices: A Simple Concept of Indian Cooking, by Neeta Saluja

5 spice jacket 1st glly.inddMany cooks are overwhelmed by the number of spices necessary to recreate traditional cuisine. Five spices, Fifty dishes, by Ruta Kahate offers a simplified approach, presenting recipes that revolve around only five basic spices: turmeric, coriander, cumin, mustard and cayenne pepper, to create vegetarian and meat-based dishes.

Turmeric is in wide demand by the food processing industry, as synthetic colors are increasingly avoided. Turmeric is  widely used a natural food coloring to impart a deeper color to a diverse range of products including: butter, margarine, salad dressings and cheese, ice cream and yogurt, as well as baked goods, popcorn, gelatin, and even orange juice. Turmeric imparts a vivid color to soup broths and salad dressings. Turmeric is used as a flavoring additive for many mustard blends, as well as for sausages, pickles and relishes.

Turmeric is also used to color fabrics, and it is found in cosmetics. In India, turmeric paste is applied to the skin, as part of a traditional wedding; the Rasam (Ritual) of Haldi is performed one day before the wedding ceremony. Turmeric spice is mixed sandalwood powder along with milk or almond oil. The bridal glow mask is said to impart a healthy glow to the skin — and protect from evil spirits. You can make your own Turmeric Facial Mask from turmeric, rice flour and yogurt — it is said to soften the skin, and relieve the symptoms of acne.

Health Benefits:

DSCN1045Turmeric, or more specifically, curcumin, acts as an antioxidant, meaning that it scavenges free radicals in the body. The compound has been promoted as an anti-inflammatory. Topical pastes made with the powder can be applied to the skin to relieve the pain associated with wounds, bites, arthritis and an antiseptic for disinfecting sores.

Herbal remedies involving turmeric has been used in traditional Chinese and Indian medicine for thousands of years, particularly  as part of the Ayurvedic tradition. It was been used as a dietary supplement to relieve stomach, intestinal and liver disorders. Among the many claims, it is said to stimulate the gallbladder, reduce cholesterol level, aid in digestion and relieve irritable bowel syndrome.

There are preliminary indications that turmeric may be useful to inhibit the spread of cancer, in particular prostate and colorectal cancer, but clinical trials are few. Initial indications show that turmeric may correct cystic fibrosis in mice. Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles are undergoing regarding turmeric’s effect on dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

turmeric-supplement-spiceYou can easily incorporate turmeric spice to your diet through recipes such as those listed above — or you can sprinkle it on your salad or sandwich or add it to your soup or stew. There are also pure herbal supplements containing turmeric (specifically curcumin).

Turmeric is considered safe for general use, but there are few systematic studies involving larger, therapeutic doses of the spice. Possible interactions may occur for individuals using blood-thinning medications, non steroidal pain relievers, drugs to reduce stomach acid, or those undergoing treatment for diabetes.

No guarantee it will keep away evil spirits.

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