Turmeric, one of the staple ingredients of curry, has been found to have amazing health giving properties.
These stem from turmeric’s magic property of curcumin, an anti-inflammatory, active ingredient that can treat a range of diseases such as Alzheimers, diabetes, allergies and arthritis. Studies have found curcumin to be effective in treating irritable bowel syndrome and, more recently, in preventing bowel cancer.
In India and China, however, the miraculous power of turmeric has been known for over 5,000 years where it has been used first as a dye and then in traditional medicine to treat a variety of complaints including jaundice, haemorrhage, toothache, bruises, and even flatulence (parp!).
Although Arab traders introduced turmeric to
Europe in the 13th century it has only
recently become common in the west – mainly because of the growing popularity
of curry and Indian restaurants.
With a warm, peppery and bitter flavour, the spice comes from a very beautiful plant, Curcuma longa, a member of the ginger family. This perennial grows wild, mainly in the forests of southern
reaches around one metre in height with ribbed leaves, white flowers and
cylindrical, aromatic rhizomes.
The spice comes from the rhizomes which are gathered annually, boiled for about 30-45 minutes and then dried in hot ovens. They are then ground into the deep yellow powder commonly used in curries, to give mustard its distinctive colour or used to make chicken soups golden. However, the whole plant is edible – even the flowers can be eaten as an exotic lettuce and the leaves can be used as a flavour imparting wrap.
Historically, turmeric was thought to have spiritual properties because of its yellow-orange colouring which was associated with the sun. Hindu monks were traditionally coloured with a yellow dye made from turmeric. It is also used throughout
India in weddings and religious
ceremonies. In Bangladesh
the Gaye holud (literally,‘yellow on the body’) is a ceremony which takes place
one or two days before a wedding. The turmeric paste is applied to the bodies
of the couple by (presumably by very good friends) and is said to soften the
skin as well as colouring the bride and groom yellow.
The ingredient is especially common in South Asian and Middle Eastern cooking: Iranian fried dishes consist of oil, onions and turmeric followed by other dishes. In
it is widely used in vegetable and meat dishes and in Indonesia flavours the curry base of dishes such
as rendang, sate padang.
In Maharashtra and Goa, turmeric leaves are
used to wrap and cook food, imparting a distinctive taste. The root can also be
used fresh, like ginger in pickle. Although turmeric is used mainly to flavour
savoury dishes it can also be used to prepare special sweets.
Photos by Peter Renfrew