Let’s talk turmeric: It felt like turmeric was 2017’s wonder ingredient. Although the rich, yellow-coloured spice has been used in traditional cuisines for thousands of years, 2017 was the year that it went truly mainstream. Turmeric found its way into products as diverse as protein bars, lattes and kombucha. Anyone interested in ‘wellness’ wanted to grate or grind the spice into anything they could think of. We went crazy for the health-supporting potential of this readily accessible and quite delicious ingredient.
What is turmeric?
Turmeric is a spice that is used cooking to give a beautiful yellow colour to foods and depth of flavour to curries and spice mixes. It has an earthy, almost mushroomy flavour on its own and works well in mixes with other spices. The dried spice is prepared from tubers of Curcuma longa plant. The tubers grow underground (like ginger – in fact they look like orange ginger, even though they taste quite different). Once harvested they can be used fresh, or dried and pulverised into the yellow powder that is ubiquitous in the supermarket spice aisle.
There are many types of turmeric but Allepey turmeric is highest in curcumin which gives the distinctive colour and flavour to the spice.
Turmeric was used as component of ayurvedic medicine for over a thousand years before the intrepid explorer, Marco Polo noticed the spice in 1280. He was impressed that a vegetable had the same colour-giving properties as saffron. Perhaps he saw it used as a dye for the robes of monks, as it is still used today. The spice also holds an important place in Hindi culture and features in traditional wedding ceremonies.
What is all the fuss?
Turmeric’s main chemical component is curcumin. This is what makes the spice both delicious and delightful-looking. Turmeric has been used for thousands of years in traditional medicine in India, Asia and Africa. When a small 2016 study showed that the spice had some real impact as an anti-inflammatory ingredient, the whole world went berserk! Enthralled by the possibility that this cheap and ubiquitous spice might be a medical silver bullet right under our noses, scientists began clinical trials to study it. Curcumin capsules launched onto the market and people even died by trying with turmeric infusions and injections.
Although the spice continued to grow in popularity as a superfood, the scientific evidence hasn’t showed that turmeric is a medical miracle. What is most likely is that turmeric makes healthy foods (like vegetables) taste great and eating a wide variety of vegetables does lead to good health outcomes. So use turmeric widely to keep you eating vegetables and you are using it in the healthiest way possible!
In middle eastern spice markets, turmeric is called ‘Indian Saffron’ because it colours foods in the same way. However, the spices are quite different.
How do you use turmeric in cooking?
Dried turmeric is a main ingredient in many Indian rice dishes, marinades, spice mixes, curry powder and curry pastes. On its own, turmeric tastes quite subtle and earthy, but combined with other spices it adds depth, richness and a lot of yellow to foods. It is used in Middle Eastern and North African cuisines for its colour giving properties. Fresh turmeric is often used in south east asian food. If you’ve never tried cooking with turmeric before, start by experimenting with a vegetable curry or a turmeric rice dish.
In January we will be going crazy with turmeric! From marinades through to spice mixes, we’ll be sharing all the best turmeric recipes to help make your meals healthy and delicious. Sign up to our newsletter to get the summary at the end of the month.
Is turmeric a sustainable food?
Although it also grows in South East Asian and Australia, the plant turmeric comes from is native to India and 80% of world production still takes place there. Turmeric crops help support smallholder farmers, their families and communities. As such some of the sustainability issues that are common with smallholder farmers in developing countries also affect turmeric production. In particular, incorrect chemical application can risk the health of farmers and their land.
Such practices can result in residues in the products which makes them unfit for consumption. Issues felt by farmers across the globe like declining soil fertility, climate change and depleting water resources can also affect a farmer’s crops and render them unfit for sale. This results in a lot of waste with in the Indian spice industry and recent initiatives have started to improve the environmental, social and economic sustainability of the spice industry in India.
Spices are still considered a healthy and sustainable way to add flavour and interest to your food!