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Turmeric: History, Culinary Uses and Nutrition

About turmeric, botanical name Curcuma longa; textile dye from antiquity, food additive, herbal remedy and a superfood, packed with antioxidants.

Turmeric, botanical name Curcuma longa, is a perennial plant native to India that, like ginger, is valued for its edible rhizome or root. This yellow, aromatic, slightly bitter, spice is most often used to enhance the flavor and color of food in Asia and was also used as textile dye, before synthetic dyes became available. Turmeric root is a source of antioxidants from curcumin, a natural plant phenol that is almost identical to the glycosides that give saffron its yellow coloring. Although there the similarity ends because the yellow of saffron comes from its flower stamens and not roots. Nevertheless the fact that saffron has traditionally been the more expensive commodity for dying textiles has made turmeric a good alternative, hence a former name for turmeric 'Indian saffron'.

Turmeric in History: Our knowledge of the spice turmeric in the ancient world is somewhat enigmatic, although answers may lie in several clues. The Greek philosopher Theophrastus (371-287 BC.), who produced several pioneering botanical works, may have known about turmeric when he listed an aromatic spice called 'khroma', which means color in Greek. In De Materia Medica the Greek physician Dioscorides lists turmeric as a medicinal remedy and correctly remarks that the yellow spice is related to ginger. We can also speculate that Diocletian, who was Roman Emperor from 284-305 AD, was referring to turmeric when he listed 'Arabian saffron,' to be supplied by Arabian merchants to the Roman army.

However, for more visible historical evidence we need look no further than India, the native land of turmeric. In India the bright yellow color of turmeric powder has a mythical, almost magical association. Turmeric is thought to bring prosperity and luck and is therefore used in most traditional, social ceremonies. For example, Tamil women dye the soles of their feet and color the palms of their hands for their wedding ceremonies. The tradition may originate from the appearance of Indian textile dye workers in the city of Erode, Tamil Nadu State, who were often known to have turmeric yellow complexions and yellow hands. A piece of turmeric (Haldi) root is often planted in the middle of a paddy field, so as to encourage a good harvest. Buddhist monks have been know to dye their robs with turmeric, although saffron is also used when available.

It's thought that turmeric has probably been utilized in India for well over two thousand years. Certainly, the spice is mentioned in ancient Ayurvedic medicine from the 1st century BC (haridra), as the most important spice for blood purification. Turmeric first appears in Chinese texts in the seventh century, and became a remedy for numerous ailments such as colic, menstrual cramps, pain, indigestion and for preventing haemorrhage. After observing turmeric root in Southeast China Marco Polo remarked that turmeric is “a kind of fruit that is like saffron, though it is not. Yet it is quite as effective in use a saffron”. The variety of turmeric from southern china was considered, and still is, as the best quality, equivalent to that of Bengal.

Turmeric has traditionally been most popular in Asia and also the Middle East. The exotic spice's yellow color was compared to saffron and appropriately named 'kourkoum,' which is an an alternative Arabic word for saffron. During the Middle Ages the Spanish took a liking to turmeric and 'kourkoum' became curcuma. The origin of the English name turmeric is not known for sure, although it could be derived from the Latin expression 'terra merita', which means 'the deserving earth.' Nowadays turmeric is cultivated in many tropical countries including the Philippines, Indonesia and Peru. Interestingly, Europe's top consumer of the spice is no longer Spain but Britain.

Culinary Uses: Turmeric powder is made by boiling the root, dehydrating, polishing, then grinding to a fine powder. Depending on variety and origin, turmeric rhizomes can vary in color although color is not an indication of quality.

It's impossible to think of turmeric without thinking of Indian spice blends such as curry powder and garam masala, of which the yellow spice is an intrinsic ingredient. After the British colonized India many spices were brought back and found their way into British cuisine. Turmeric is an ingredient in the fermented condiment Worcestershire Sauce and also Colman's Original English Mustard. Turmeric is popular in modern British cuisine; the reason, according to some, is because the spices scent and flavor holds a nostalgia or romantic reminiscence of the old Indian Empire. Turmeric is also used to color cheese, butter, margarine, candy and even some liqueurs.

Nutrition: In terms of spices turmeric is an excellent source of Potassium, the mineral essential for electrolyte balance and maintaining a normal heart rhythm. One 2g teaspoon of the spice has 56mg of potassium, appropriately twice that of ground cinnamon. Turmeric is also a source of phosphorus, about 6mg per teaspoon. Phosphorus is crucial for maintaining strong bones and teeth, a deficiency of which causes the retardation of growth in children and the bone disease rickets. The same amount of ground turmeric powder contains 4mg calcium, 4mg magnesium and 0.9mg iron.

Turmeric and Antioxidants: A few years ago turmeric became touted as a antioxidant 'superfood', able to help protect against a variety of chronic diseases. It turned out that a group of substances known as curcuminoids (they make turmeric yellow) have powerful antioxidants and anti-inflammatory effects. The various curcuminoids found in turmeric, of which curcumin is the most abundant, have been proven, through en vivo research, to protect against leukemia, breast cancer, prostate cancer and colon cancer. Including turmeric in your diet or taking supplements may also help prevent diabetes and cataracts. A recent study also suggests that short term turmeric supplementation can ease the suffering of those with relapsing or refractory Lupus. So it seems that the physicians of the ancient world who recommended turmeric were right. No doubt Dioscorides would say “I told you so”, if he could.

Primary image credit, flickr.com.

Image credit. Above; this sacred cow has been dyed with turmeric. Image credit; In India fish can be rubbed with turmeric and chilli powder before being fried.     

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Comments (15)

I have Turmeric in my spice cabinet. Nice write up on one of my faavorite spices.

I like this Turmeric spice and learned so much about the nutritional benefits from your great presentation.

Just retrurning with a well deserved vote up.

Interesting ritual connection.

Excellent article. You really made it more fun with those pics.

Peter, this is really a great article.

Thank you Martin Sir for your encouraging comment, and thank you to all the other writers who left comments. Much appreciated.

I love turmeric, thanks Peter for this valuable input about it.

The cow looked like a statue! Good guide on how to use Tumeric

Cool. I didn't know any of this.

A very well-researched and presented article, Peter. I enjoy turmeric now and then, especially with rice and black beans.

I never knew this before...Thanks to you!

Impressive and informative work Peter. Thanks

Interesting and informative. I am always attracted to using tumeric in cooking. Now I wonder if perhaps I need it for something, it seems to cover so many ailments, a useful spice indeed

Turmeric has many health benefits, thanks for the info.

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