Turmeric is part of the ginger family and like ginger, it is a rhizome; a horizontal stem of a plant that grows underground. Generally speaking, it is valued more for its colour than its flavour (turmeric is the oldest natural food dye in the world) but it is used extensively in South Asian and Middle Eastern cooking.
Turmeric grows wild in South Asia and has an earthy, slightly bitter taste, not too dissimilar from saffron and for this reason it is often used as an alternative to the far more expensive spice. Its mustardy smell and hot and peppery flavour make it a popular choice for most curry bases and powders.
Due to its similar properties, turmeric can be used fresh in the same way as ginger and is popular in this form in Far Eastern recipes. Alternatively, it can be boiled for several hours then dried in a hot oven, before being ground into an orange/yellow powder. It is in this dried, powdered form that turmeric is usually used. It is widely used as a spice in South Asian and Middle Eastern cooking, especially in Indian, Persian and Thai dishes.
Many Persian dishes use turmeric as a starter ingredient and is fried with oil and onions to make a base before adding the rest of the ingredients. Turmeric is widely grown in Nepal and is extensively used in the country’s vegetable and meat dishes for its colour and medicinal advantages. In South Africa, it is used to give rice a golden colour.
In some regions food is sometimes wrapped and cooked in the leaves of the turmeric plant to add a distinct flavour. This is usually in areas where turmeric is locally grown as the leaves need to be fresh.
Outside South Asia, turmeric is sometimes used as a colouring agent for its rich, yellow colour. It is mostly used in savoury dishes but also some sweet dishes. It can be found in canned beverages, as well as baked products including cakes and biscuits. Dairy products like ice cream and yogurts and orange juice, popcorn, sweets, icing, cereals, sauces, and gelatines also commonly contain turmeric for colouring.
The crucial chemical, curcumin, found in turmeric is believed to be the key to its many medicinal uses. A lot has been said about turmeric’s possible benefits in treating cancer of late and a number of laboratory studies on cancer cells have shown that curcumin does have anticancer effects. It seems to be able to kill cancer cells and prevent more from growing.
Research is also being conducted into turmeric’s possible benefits for Alzheimer’s sufferers. It is thought the excessive use of the spice in Indian cooking could explain why rates of Alzheimer’s are much lower among the elderly in this region than in the West. Again, it is thought that curcumin is responsible for slowing down the diseases progression.
Turmeric is also used for its anti-inflammatory agents and as a remedy for many digestive disorders. It is used in skin cream as an anti-septic for cuts, burns and bruises and is popular in tea in Japan.
Indian and Pakistani women use turmeric in pastes to remove hair.
It is said to improve the appearance of skin and is used in creams as part of anti-aging regimes in some cultures. Staining oneself with turmeric is believed to improve the skin tone and tan which may explain why Turmeric features heavily in the beautifying process of brides in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Turmeric is also currently used in the formulation of some sunscreens.