Guide to turmeric - details of the history, preparation and storage of turmeric.

Turmeric is a spice that is native to S.E. Asia and is predominantly cultivated and used in India and in Indian cuisine.

It is a member of the ginger family and is treated in much the same way, yet turmeric is bright yellow-orange in colour and has often been called the "Indian saffron".

As saffron is the most expensive spice available, turmeric is often substituted in its place due to its bright colour, although there are no similarities in the two tastes.
Fresh turmeric is slightly spicy, peppery and zesty with a hint of ginger and orange and it is one of the main components of a curry. When the spice is ground to a powder, it is a vital element of the curry powder spice.

Ground turmeric has a much milder flavour than fresh turmeric and is not as strong flavoured as it looks.

As well as being a much-loved spice in Indian and other Asian cuisines, turmeric has amazing medicinal properties, many of which have been known for thousands of years in Ancient Chinese and Indian styles of medicine.

The turmeric plant

As with ginger, the turmeric spice is obtained from the root of the plant. The root consists of a number of finger-like rhizomes, smaller than ginger and light brown in colour. Inside, the rhizome has a bright orange flesh.

The roots are harvested after which they are boiled and then dried for about a week. Occasionally the rhizomes are then polished before being sold on the market.

Turmeric is also available in the ground form and some of the rhizomes are ground to a powder after drying. The dried ground powder is bright yellow in colour.

Fresh turmeric may be hard to come by in European markets, but if you do happen to find some, it is easy to prepare. As with ginger, the turmeric rhizome must be peeled and then it is easily chopped or sliced with a knife or ground down by using a pestle and mortar. Care must be taken when handling fresh turmeric, as it easily stains the skin and may take several days to wash off.

The history of turmeric

Turmeric is a very ancient spice and records show that it was an exceptionally important medicinal spice in India and China as long ago as the 7th century BC.

It was used in many religious rituals and due to its bright yellow colour, it often symbolised the sun.

Turmeric has long been used to treat a number of disorders particularly stomach and liver problems, jaundice, coughs and colds, skin complaints such as ulcers, leprosy, insect bites and wounds, eye infections plus a whole host of other ailments.

Arab spice traders introduced turmeric to Europe in the Middle Ages but it has only recently become popular due to the influence of Asian cuisine and the latest medical interest into this spice as a powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and food that is able to reduce "bad" cholesterol.

The medicinal value of turmeric

In recent years there has been a renewed interest in how fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices benefit the body and maintain good health. Researchers are studying many herbs and spices in depth and are looking at their components and how these components affect the body and help to heal disease.

One of the main components of turmeric is curcumin, the pigment of the spice that gives it its yellow colour. Researchers have found that curcumin has significant anti-inflammatory qualities that even rival some of the major drugs prescribed by our doctors.

Curcumin has also been found to be an extremely potent antioxidant, thus protecting the body's cells against destruction and damage by free radicals, which could ultimately lead to the formation of cancer.

Another major find is that turmeric lowers the level of "bad" cholesterol in the blood. High levels of cholesterol can lead to heart disease and other forms of cardiovascular disease.

Turmeric has many more medicinal properties, some which were known hundreds and even thousands of years ago during the times when herbal medicine was the only form of medicine, and some of these have now been verified by modern research and medicine.

Some of the medicinal properties of turmeric are:
  • Turmeric is a powerful anti-inflammatory.
  • Turmeric can relieve stomach pains such as cramps, gas, colic, wind and indigestion and it is an effective digestive.
  • Turmeric may be used to treat inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) such as Crohn's.
  • Curcumin has the ability to block the effects of free radical damage, which is very useful for sufferers of arthritis. Free radicals damage healthy cells and cause inflammation of the joints and eventual permanent damage to the joints.
  • Turmeric is a powerful antioxidant, therefore preventing the formation of a number of cancers, for example breast cancer, lung, colon and prostate cancer.
  • Turmeric has a very beneficial effect on the liver, enhancing the performance of the liver and ridding the liver of dangerous chemicals and toxins.
  • Scientists are now studying evidence that points to the fact that turmeric slows down the progression of neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's and dementia.
  • Turmeric protects against cardiovascular disease.
  • Turmeric may help with skin disorders such as eczema and dermatitis.
  • Turmeric has long been used to treat stomach disorders such as gastritis and acid in the stomach.
  • In Ayurvedic medicine, turmeric has been used to treat eye ailments ranging from poor vision to conjunctivitis.
  • Turmeric may be useful for coughs, colds and even bronchitis.
  • Externally turmeric can be applied to cuts, bruises, skin rashes, ulcers, infected injuries and insect bites.

Buying, storing and preparing turmeric

If you want to use turmeric in your cooking, you will find that it is most commonly available in a powder form already ground. Turmeric does not lost its colour over time but it will lose its flavour slightly, so it is best to buy one jar at a time.

If you are lucky enough to find some fresh turmeric, it is easy to prepare but precaution must be taken when handling the fresh spice, as it stains the skin very easily and may take several days to wash off.

It is probably best to use rubber gloves when handling this spice.

When preparing fresh turmeric, you must always peel it first.

Fresh turmeric has a thick brown protective skin that is not usually eaten.

If using fresh turmeric, you can grind it into a powder before adding to other ingredients by using a pestle and mortar or you can just as easily finely chop it, mince it, grate it or thinly slice it with a sharp knife.

To store fresh turmeric, make sure that the rhizome is dry, wrap it in a paper towel before placing it in a plastic bag and then store in the refrigerator. It should keep for several weeks maybe longer.

Culinary uses of turmeric

Turmeric is a favourite in Indian, Thai and other Asian cuisines. It is always found in a curry and in all types of curry powder.

Turmeric is often added to rice or sweet Indian dishes for its colour and not always for its flavour. It gives food a bright yellow shade, which may be more pleasing to the eye and more enticing to the palate.

Below are number of ideas for how to use turmeric in the kitchen:
  • Add to all curries.
  • Add to savoury rice dishes to colour the rice.
  • Add to lentils, as the flavours blend well together.
  • Add to chutneys, pickles and relishes.
  • Turmeric is often found in fish soups or stews.
  • Turmeric can be added to potato dishes.
  • Add to mayonnaise for a bold colour and hint of spice.
  • Use in Middle Eastern styled meat marinades, particularly for lamb.
  • Turmeric can be added to savoury soups to give them a deeper colour.
  • Turmeric is often partnered with shellfish or fish particularly when fried.
  • You can also add turmeric to spicy chicken and rice dishes.
  • Add turmeric to spicy casseroles and stews.
  • You can use turmeric to flavour and colour couscous.

Turmeric Recipes

Recipe ideas for cooking with turmeric in the kitchen, including Bombay potatoes, mixed bhajis and mussels in a creamy turmeric sauce.

Mixed Vegetable Bhajis

These mixed bhajis can be served on their own as a delicious starter or as an accompaniment to a main meal. Serve with a salad or with rice and curry.

  • 6 oz (170 g) of gram flour
  • 3½ oz (100 g) of lightly cooked cauliflower
  • 1 small leek
  • 1 small onion
  • 10 - 12 tbsp of cold water
  • 2 tbsp of freshly chopped coriander
  • 2 tsp of ground coriander
  • 1½ tsp of turmeric
  • 1½ tsp of chilli powder
  • 1 tsp of garam masala
  • 1 tsp of bicarbonate of soda
  • salt and pepper
  • vegetable oil for frying
  1. In a large mixing bowl sift the gram flour and the bicarbonate of soda.
  2. Add some salt, all of the spices and the freshly chopped coriander. Mix well.
  3. Divide the flour mixture into three separate bowls.
  4. Halve the onion and then cut into thin slices.
  5. Add the sliced onion to one of the bowls of flour and mix together.
  6. Slice the leek and add to the second bowl of flour. Mix together.
  7. Add the cooked cauliflower to the third bowl and mix into the flour.
  8. Add 3 or 4 tbsp of cold water to each bowl and mix the ingredients together with a spoon until a paste forms.
  9. If you have a deep fat fryer, heat the vegetable oil until it reaches a temperature of 350°F (180°C) or a cube of bread turns brown within 30 seconds. A deep frying pan is also suitable.
  10. Take some of the mixture from one bowl and shape into a small ball. Repeat the same for the rest of the bowl and then the remaining two bowls.
  11. Fry for about 3 or 4 minutes until the bhajis have browned and then drain on kitchen paper.
  12. Place in an ovenproof dish and keep warm whilst you fry the rest of the bhaji mixture.
  13. Serve warm with a salad or with your main meal.

Bombay Potatoes

There are several variations on the recipe for Bombay potatoes. These potatoes are fried in spices and yoghurt and then transferred to the oven to cook through. Serve as an accompaniment to any type of curry or any main meal.

  • 25 oz (710 g) of waxy potatoes
  • ½ pint (285 ml) of natural yoghurt
  • 2 tbsp of vegetable ghee
  • 2 tbsp of tomato purée
  • 3 tsp of ground turmeric
  • 1 tsp of panch poran spice mix
  • chopped coriander
  • salt
  1. Wash and peel the potatoes and place them in a pan of salty water. Bring to the boil and cook the potatoes until they are just cooked (10 - 15 mins).
  2. In a separate saucepan heat the vegetable ghee.
  3. Add the tomato purée, turmeric, panch poran, salt and yoghurt and mix well. Cook for 5 minutes on a gentle simmer, stirring frequently.
  4. Once the potatoes are just cooked but not soft drain them of the water and allow to cool until you can handle them.
  5. Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).
  6. Quarter the potatoes and add to the pan with the yoghurt mixture. Cook for 2 - 3 minutes.
  7. Transfer to an ovenproof casserole dish and cover with a lid.
  8. Place into the preheated oven and cook for 35 - 45 minutes or until the potatoes are cooked through and the sauce has thickened.
  9. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with the chopped coriander before serving.

Mussels in a Creamy Turmeric Sauce

This dish is simple and quick to prepare. It can be eaten as a starter with fresh crusty bread or as a main meal with a side serving of French fries.

Ingredients (serves 1 to 2 people)
  • 6 oz (170 g) of cleaned mussels
  • ½ pint (285 ml) of vegetable stock
  • ¼ pint (140 ml) of cream
  • 2 tbsp of soy sauce
  • 1 tsp of turmeric
  1. Place the vegetable stock together with the soy sauce into a wide saucepan. Mix together and warm up on a high heat.
  2. Make sure that the mussels have been thoroughly scrubbed and cleaned and then add to the saucepan.
  3. Cover the pan with the lid and leave until the liquid begins to boil and steam is being released from the sides of the pan.
  4. Reduce the heat to a simmer, keep the pan covered and allow the mussels to steam.
  5. Steam the mussels until they open up, which should take about 5 minutes. Make sure that you shake the bottom of the pan from time to time. (For more detailed instructions on how to cook mussels, see our section on how to steam mussels).
  6. As soon as the mussels begin to open up, remove them one by one from the saucepan and transfer to a large and deep serving dish. Discard any mussels that do not open.
  7. Add the cream and turmeric to the leftover stock in the saucepan and stir well.
  8. Bring to the boil and boil for 4 minutes, stirring constantly.
  9. Pour the cream sauce over the mussels and serve immediately.

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