The earthy and pungent scent of a Turmeric rhizome that has been freshly picked and cracked into two, is unmistakable. It’s a scent that one seldom forgets. It lingers with you, and if you’re lucky, makes its way to your plate. In comparison to the unassuming skin that resembles ginger, the burst of orange within pales your surroundings. It is often called Indian Saffron, due to the color it imparts, but is quite a special shade on its own.
Turmeric, or Curcuma Longa, is a plant that belongs to the family of Zingiberaceae that includes its cousin ginger, and much like it has a botanical composition that allows you to extract utility from root to shoot. Its rhizomes, flowers, and leaves - have all been cleverly used to shape our behaviors from farms to pharmacies.
Said to have originated from South Asia, Turmeric or Haldi, holds a special place in India, owing to its avid consumption since the advent of Ayurvedic practices. It was concocted into potions and pastes for respiratory, digestive, hormonal, and circulatory problems - owing to its phytochemical properties. Claims are that there’s almost nothing that can’t be fixed with a sprinkle of the Golden Spice. It’s no surprise then that it wasn’t too long before Turmeric began to be widely traded and found in the apothecaries of China, kitchens of Africa, and courts of Europe. It firmly planted its roots in China around 700 AD and East Africa by 800 AD, creating ripples wherever it docked.
In China, it was mentioned in the world’s first pharmacopeia, the Tang Materia Medica. In Persia, Turmeric and egg yolk were used for joint pain due to the anti-inflammatory properties. For every port and village it touched, Turmeric was adopted for its healing properties, and created a river of change through their cuisines.
Among spices, Turmeric occupies a position at the top of the pyramid because of the power it wields in the kitchen. It not only provides depth and earthiness to the foods but also dyes it a vibrant hue. Today, tucked into a cool corner of the kitchen, Turmeric has an unwavering presence in the masala danis of Indian households, as well as a stronghold in Asian and African kitchens. From aromatic Thai curries, the decadent Lebanese cakes such as Sfouf, or a spicy Ethiopian Alicha Wot, Turmeric powder has become enmeshed with a region’s culinary history. With Naga dishes such as pork stir-fried with the delicate Turmeric flowers, or sweet Konkani rice dumplings made using the leaves, communities have also learned to cook with different parts of the plant, adapting recipes according to seasons, climates, and terroir the plant grows in.
Beyond food, Turmeric holds a special place in religious rituals. It has historically been a symbol of purity, and of the triumph of good over evil. When a cotton thread is steeped in Turmeric water, it gains a deep yellow tint. On auspicious occasions, the thread is tied as a cord that signifies a connection and commitment between two people, it symbolizes the beliefs of a community. Turmeric further finds itself adorning religious spaces and possessing an irreplaceable position in religious art. Intricate designs fall flat without its energy. In Buddhism too, monks wear robes that are dyed naturally using Turmeric, spotting the monasteries with bright orbs of joy.
Today, Turmeric is approximately a US$ 236 million business in India, with the country being the largest producer, exporter, and consumer. It faces fierce and growing competition from other countries including Myanmar, Netherlands, and Indonesia, and yet, is a stronghold for the spice.
What is evident, however, is that Turmeric is more than just a spice. You find it on a pious believer’s forehead, in a grandmother’s spiced doodh, and also in your neighborhood Starbucks’ Turmeric Latte. Its relevance is many millennia old, yet it claws its way into the category of rediscovered superfoods. I’m sure several grandmothers acknowledge this fact with a grimace.
The World of Turmeric is one of ancient and intricate spice trade routes, heirloom recipes, and cutting-edge research. It’s a spice that can’t be summarized into a short read. It demands and validates a deeper exploration of its ethnobotanical significance. So, join in as we unwrap the exciting universe of the spice with the Midas touch, a week at a time.