Indian Essentials: About Turmeric, the Wonder Spice

A Life Giving spice – Turmeric.



Turmeric is a vivid yellow rhizome of the ginger family (Curcuma Domestica of Zingiberaceae Family) with an emphatic flavour. A native of India, the rhizome is yellowish brown and has small, delicate fingers with rough, segmented skin. India produces nearly all of the world’s turmeric, and consumes 80% of it! It is usually sold ground as a fine, bright yellow powder, although in S.E. Asia it is the fresh rhizome that is used. The leaves are also used as flavourings in some regions of Indonesia and Western Sumatra.

Fresh Turmeric and Turmeric Powder

Fresh turmeric is quite orange inside with an aromatic and spicy fragrance, and when dried, turns a bright yellow with a more earthy aroma. It is this musky yellow powder that gives some Indian and Thai dishes a yellowish cast. It is also the source of the lurid hue of the Anglo-Indian Piccalilli pickle! Turmeric is also a particular favourite in Iranian and Iraqi cuisine.

“I have found a plant that has all the qualities of Saffron, but it is a root.”
(Marco Polo on Turmeric, 1280 AD)

It is usually bought in powder form but the root is sometimes also available from Asian and Indian grocery shops. It is beginning to be common even in green grocers now. It is essential in Curry Powder blends and in Ras el Hanout. A spice blend in the Chennai (Madras) style contains turmeric, coriander, mustard seeds, cumin, Chillies, fennel, pepper, garlic and salt. As well as India, it is used widely in S. E. Asia. It is quite cheap to buy and is used freely in the cooking of pulses and vegetables.

Turmeric tastes pleasant, but in large amounts can become bitter. Eating too much can cause side effects.

There is also a white turmeric, zedoary, closely related to yellow turmeric. It is not used as a spice, but rather as a vegetable.


Names of Turmeric

The name Turmeric comes from the Latin Terra Merita, which means meritorious earth. In some languages the name just means yellow root.

Turmeric is also called:

Indian Saffron, Tumeric, Yellow Ginger
French:curcuma, saffron des Indes
Burmese:fa nwin
Chinese:wong geung fun
Indian:haldee, haldi, huldee, huldie
Indonesian: kunjit, kunyit
Malay: kunjit
Sinhalese: kaha
Tamil: munjal
: kamin


The History

Turmeric has been used in India since the Vedic times 4,000 years ago. But the exact origin cannot be determined because of the uncharted and nebulous nature of ancient trade routes. It is known, however, that in ancient times, turmeric was both the predominant spice used, and it was also had spiritual connotations and was (and is) used in Hindu temple ceremonies.

The plant

Though Turmeric is common it is an uncommonly beautiful plant with orange red lily-like flowers and deep green long slender leaves that smell like mangos. Turmeric root is a rhizome with bright yellow-orange flesh and a tough brown skin. It has a peppery, warm and bitter flavour with a mild fragrance slightly reminiscent of orange and ginger. It comes from the root of the Curcuma longa plant. The name derives from the Latin terra merita “meritorious earth” referring to the colour of ground turmeric which resembles a mineral pigment. In many languages turmeric is simply named as “yellow root”.

Turmeric Dyes Everything Yellow!

It was sometimes called “Indian saffron” because of its deep yellow-orange color and has been used throughout history as a condiment, cosmetic, healing remedy and textile dye. Turmeric is a powerful anti-inflammatory in the Chinese and Indian systems of medicine.

Turmeric is often used as a dye, and has been for thousands of years. At one time, Sun worshipers, whose sacred colour was yellow, dyed their textiles with the very expensive saffron. When they discovered that turmeric provided the same brilliant colour, saffron was kept for special culinary purposes.

It is this staining property that can cause problems in the kitchen.  Its colour is fairly indelible – if you are working with fresh turmeric, be careful of your chopping surfaces – if using wood, it might take some time to remove the dye from the wood. However, the dye is not light proof, so utensils can be placed in the sun for a short time to reduce the stain – sunlight will fade it quickly, so if scrubbing fails, put the chopping board out in the sun for a couple of hours.

Traditional Uses of Turmeric

Hindu brides apply turmeric as part of the wedding ceremony, and married women rib it into their cheeks to give a healthy golden glow. In parts of Asia it is considered a good luck charm – newborn babies or a piece of turmeric root might be made into a necklace for them to wear. In parts of the Hindu world it is applied to the forehead, and is used in making decorative/spiritual motifs (rangoli) on the floor.

In parts of India and Sri Lanka, a yellow water made with turmeric is sprinkled around the house for good luck.

There are health benefits of turmeric too (see below), and it has preservative qualities so is used a lot in pickles.

How to use Turmeric

Fresh Turmeric: Scrape the skin before using.

If you buy fresh yellow turmeric peel the outer skin, cut it into julienne strips, slit some green chillies, squeeze some lime juice and let the slivers of turmeric and green chillies soak in the lime juice with a little salt. Refrigerate them and they stay good for couple of weeks. As the days go by the pungent flavor of turmeric is mellowed down and they taste better. So if you do not like it on the first day, give it a try couple of days later. Have it with your meal as a pickle one more item with your meal.

A Note on Turmeric | Spice | Heat in The Kitchen

Turmeric Powder: If fresh turmeric is not available, use 0.5 – 1 teaspoon of powdered turmeric for 2.5 cm of fresh root.

Turmeric is extremely strong, and actually gets stronger when cooked. A little goes a long way, so use it carefully.  Although its colour is similar to saffron, the culinary uses of the two spices should not be confused and should never ever replace saffron in food dishes. The taste is completely different.

Combine turmeric with black pepper to maximise its health benefits. Remember that consuming too much turmeric can cause side effects.

Turmeric and Ayurveda – Healing Properties

In Indian, turmeric is treated as a healing spice. The rest of the world is still doing its research. It is a very purifying, cleansing and a natural blood purifier and revitaliser. It contains curcumin which has an anti-inflammatory action, and is a powerful antioxidant. It fights protozoa-microbes that cause many illnesses. It may help heart disease by lowering cholesterol levels and preventing formation of internal blood clots. It is useful for improving digestive function, intestinal infections and for diarrhoea.

Turmeric has a bitter, astringent and pungent taste and is a general balancer of all three doshas. In Ayurvedic medicine, it is used for poor vision, rheumatic pains, coughs and to increase milk production. Turmeric is used in treatments for fever, wounds, infections, dysentery, arthritis, jaundice and other liver problems. It stimulates the flow of bile, and so it aids digestion especially fats; it prevents ulcers by protecting the stomach lining, protects the liver, helps heart disease and indicates some useful effects on some cancers. It stimulates pitta digestion, alleviates vata aches, pains and anxiety, and reduces kapha digestion. It stimulates the immune system and revitalises the skin.

It is helpful for removing environmental toxins or heavy metals from the body and to alleviate stomach and liver pain.

“In trauma we always give in a tall glass of hot milk, two spoons each of Haldi and Ghee. This takes care of everything.”

Boil a little turmeric in a glass of milk and add a pinch of black pepper. Sweeten if you like, and drink hot to alleviate coughs and colds. Chew on raw turmeric to relieve a sore throat and congestion.

It is considered an excellent natural antibiotic which aids digestion at the same time. Recent research suggests that turmeric might also help to slow the progress of Alzheimer’s disease and prove and effective treatment for radiation burns.

Apply a paste of turmeric on wounds and bruises, sprains and swellings. The paste can include honey for extra effectiveness. Indian dancers apply it to keep their muscles supple.

A Note on Turmeric | Heat in The Kitchen | Spices | Indian Recipes | Vegetarian
(photo from stock and AFP)

Spiritual Significance

In many places in the world its use is connected with spiritual/religious rites. In Bali, for example, nasi kuning (yellow rice) is prepared from rice, turmeric, coconut milk and aromatic spices. It is considered a special dish and is ritually offered to the gods. It is often carried to the temples in cones. Even on the island of Java, which is now Islamic rather than Hindu, nasi kuning is still considered a sacred dish.

Turmeric is also of religious significance in India,  and natives of the Pacific sprinkle the dust on their shoulders during ceremonial dances.

It is used in rituals in Hinduism, and as a dye for holy robes as it is natural (e.g. obeying ahimsa principles) and cheap. In fact, its use dates back 4000 – 6000 years, to the Vedic culture in India where it was used as a culinary spice and also had religious significance. Ostensibly it was used to worship the Sun during the Solar period of India. Especially in South India you can see people wearing a dried Turmeric rhizome bead the size of a large grape around their neck or arm. This is an ancient talisman tradition used to ward off evil and grant to the wearer healing and protection.

Buddhist monks have used Turmeric as a dye for their robes for at least 2000 years. It was listed in an Assyrian herbal circa 600 BC and was mentioned by Dioscorides in the herbal that was the Western herbal from the 1st to the 17th century. As mentioned above, Europe rediscovered it 700 years ago via Marco Polo and it is used in traditional Brazilian medicine as a potent anti-venom to neutralize the bleeding and lethal poison of Pit Vipers.

Still today, a rich red powder used in Hindu temples around the world, called Kunkum, is made from turmeric and lime. It is worn by men and women, after puja, as small a dot of kunkum worn on the forehead between the eyebrows, or in the middle of the forehead.

Making Turmeric Water

To make turmeric water, peel about 20 cm of fresh root, slice finely and combine with 1 cup of water. Process in a blender until very fine, or pound the sliced turmeric in a mortar and mix with water then standing for a few minutes. Strain and press with the back of a spoon to extract all of the juice. Store in the fridge.

Powdered turmeric is Ok to use as a substitute for fresh turmeric – 4 Tablespoons per cup of water.

You might also like our Indian Essentials series here.

Dried Fava Bean Soup with Turmeric and Herbs

Recipes for Turmeric

Feel free to browse our recipes using Turmeric here. In addition, many or most of our Indian recipes use small amounts of Turmeric.

Spicy Roasted Turmeric Chickpeas

Turmeric can be used in many different ways. In almost any Indian dish. It is indispensable in many Indian cuisines. It is used in lentil dishes (dals), and in some rice preparations such as pulaos and biryanis.

Fava Bean Soup with Turmeric and Herbs | Dried Broad Bean Soup

  • It is delicious sprinkled lightly on apples sautéed in butter, on steamed cauliflower, potatoes, on green beans and onions.
  • It complements any recipe that features lentils.
  • Give salad dressings an orange-yellow hue by adding a pinch of turmeric powder to them.
  • Cut some cauliflower florets in half and healthy sauté with a little turmeric for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and toss with olive oil, salt and pepper to taste.
  • It is used to flavour and colour butter, cheese, margarine, mustard, liquor, fruit drinks, cakes, jellies, and fruit dishes.
  • Turmeric is a classic addition to chutneys, pickles, and relishes. This is because of its anti-bacterial, preservative effect.
  • Blend with melted butter and drizzle over cooked vegetables, pasta, or potatoes.
  • Make yellow rice to colour complement your other dishes – add a pinch of turmeric to the water as the rice cooks.

Ginger Root and Turmeric Tea

Cooked with rice, it gives it a wonderful yellow colour.

You can also sprinkle a fine line of turmeric on the floor to keep away pests such as ants, but remember that it stains easily.

Rice | Turmeric Rice | Indian | Vegetarian | A Life TIme of Cooking



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