Herb & Spice Series: Turmeric

Have you ever wondered what gives mustard its yellow color? Or what’s responsible for the sunshine-y hue of your favorite curry? While we can often identify the herbs and spices that we use in cooking by their flavor or aroma, one spice – turmeric – is most often recognized for its color.

Thanks to its signature hue, medieval Europeans called turmeric “Indian saffron” because the two spices imparted a similar color to dishes. In fact, Marco Polo’s writings from the 13th century describe the spice and its similarity in color to the more expensive tulip stamens. Traditionally, turmeric has also been used as a natural dye, and it can still be found in use as a fabric colorant in India and Bangladesh. The strength of the yellow pigment warrants a warning for cooks using the spice in the kitchen: it can stain both clothing and fingers!

The turmeric we commonly use in cooking, like ginger, is actually a rhizome (a modified root) that, once harvested, is boiled, dried, and ground to create the powder we find in the market. This powder has a slightly peppery, slightly bitter, earthy flavor, with a smell that can be described as mustardy.

While we may often think of turmeric as an addition to savory foods such as Indian curries, it is actually also found in several sweets including sfouf (a Lebanese cake of almond, semolina, and pine nuts, flavored with turmeric) and patoleo or patoli (a sweet made from coconut, rice, and unrefined sugar, that is steamed in turmeric leaves which impart their own flavor to the dish). Turmeric also makes a great addition to egg dishes, can be used to flavor chicken before roasting, can be added to sautéing onions, peppers, or potatoes, is a welcome addition to vinaigrette, and can even be used to make turmeric tea.

Beyond being a tasty addition to so many recipes, turmeric – and its active ingredient curcumin – is also being investigated for its medicinal properties. Turmeric has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine in India to relieve gastrointestinal ailments, as an antimicrobial agent, to soothe skin irritation, and as a fever reducer. Current medical research is exploring the use of turmeric in the treatment of several diseases including cancer, kidney disease, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, gastrointestinal diseases, and diabetes...As if you needed another reason to try this tasty, colorful spice!

- Sally

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