Your first bite of fresh turmeric will be as eye-opening as your first bite of fresh ginger. The brilliant orange rhizomes are seductively pungent and charged with a peppery, camphorous flavor. In the flavor you can sense this spice’s exotic origins and imagine its scent perfuming a teeming bazaar or a maharaja’s banquet table.
Unfortunately, peak flavor occurs only in fresh rhizomes. When they dry, the essential oil begins to oxidize and evaporate. As long as the rhizomes remain whole, their flavor, though subdued, retains a warm, woody, almost sweet character. When the dried rhizomes are ground, however, this appealing flavor degenerates, leaving the less volatile, bitter compounds to dominate. Turmeric’s color persists as a phantom reminder of its original spiciness.
Until recently, most Americans were familiar only with the vibrantly colored but feebly flavored ground spice. We knew it as a curry’s bitter undertone or as the dull powder left to languish in the back of the pantry. We saw it but did not taste it when, as one of the food chemist’s favorite colorings, it brightened our butter, mustards, jellies, and cheeses.
Today, many of us can experience fresh turmeric’s headier flavors as an increasing number of markets serving a Southeast Asian clientele stock fresh or equally pungent frozen rhizomes. Gardeners fortunate enough to live in America’s hotter climes can grow it as well.
For a slightly less peppery but still aromatic taste, we can buy the whole dried rhizomes and grind them when we need them. They are available in Oriental markets and natural food stores and from some mail-order suppliers.
Your efforts to acquire fresh, frozen or whole dried turmeric rhizomes will be rewarded in the fuller flavor dimensions of this ancient and fascinating spice.
Turmeric, Curcuma longa (formerly C. domestica), belongs to the Zingiberaceae (ginger family). As with ginger, the spicy part of turmeric is its rhizome, or underground stem. Its luxuriant leaves are comparatively flavorless, though in Indonesia the young shoots are eaten raw.
Turmeric’s rhizome resembles ginger’s, though it is smaller, rounder, and covered with a darker skin. Turmeric’s central “mother” section is globular and referred to as a “round” in the spice trade. Its protruding “daughters” or “fingers” are pencil-shaped, unlike ginger’s flattened forms. But the telling difference lies in turmeric’s flamboyant yellow-orange flesh, far brighter than the drab tan flesh of ginger.
Turmeric thrives as a deciduous perennial in hot, moist climates around the globe. It is grown commercially in China, Haiti, Jamaica, South Africa, Peru, and India. The latter nation produces the largest crop, with annual yields exceeding 100,000 tons.
The flavor of fresh turmeric places it unmistakably in the ginger family. In it we can detect many of the constituents characteristic of other well-known family members: the turpentiny sabinene found in cardamom, gingery zingiberene found in ginger, camphorous-peppery borneol found in both those spices, and eucalyptus-flavored 1,8-cineole found in the galangals and cardamom. There is even a peppery flavor reminiscent of that in grains of paradise (Aframomum melegueta). Present only in turmeric are ar-turmerone, with its burning taste, and curcumin, turmeric’s coloring principle.
A History of Usefulness
Native to Southeast Asia, turmeric is mentioned in India’s ancient Atharva Veda, suggesting that it was established widely throughout both regions at least 3000 years ago. This text cites its efficacy in treating leprosy and jaundice. Even today, turmeric is a common Indian folk remedy, used singly or in conjunction with other botanical agents. Turmeric has been recommended as an eyewash, cold remedy, diuretic, antispasmodic, digestive aid, and emollient, and as a worming agent for humans and elephants alike.
Whether turmeric is effective for these ailments, its confirmed beneficial properties include anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial activities (against Staphylococcus aureus) and stimulation of cholesterol excretion by increasing the flow of bile from the liver. Curcumin’s potent antioxidant activity and the anti-cancer properties of related compounds suggest that it may have therapeutic potential. Ancient Assyrian and Greek herbals cite turmeric’s value as a dye.
One can only guess when turmeric found its way into the kitchen; the earliest cookery manuscripts don’t clearly mention it. Some historians believe that this spice flavored Roman food because that culture’s fourth-century gourmet par excellence, Apicius, called for “cyperus” in several recipes. The Romans used that word for turmeric, but it referred to several other tuberous flavorings as well.
Turmeric is conspicuously absent from medieval European cookery books and from the contemporaneous Middle Eastern Baghdad Cookery. Since these manuscripts called for lavish use of saffron, it is clear that their upper-crust readers preferred that precious carmine-colored spice to humble turmeric. In fact, turmeric saw little culinary use in Europe until memsahibs back from some colonial station in India brought curries to English kitchens.
Though turmeric is inconsequential in most Western cuisines, it dominates many in the East. Cooks typically blend turmeric with a variety of other spices, each chosen to complement, heighten, or even contrast with the others. Turmeric’s role is usually to add a warm, clean, camphorous note and an enticing yellow hue. Its most common companions are sweet spices (cinnamon or cloves), hot spices (such as pepper or mustard), earthy spices (such as cumin or fenugreek), and/or sharper herbs (such as dill, bay, or thyme).
These blends may be the cook’s individual preference, mixed for a given dish, or a “national” mixture. Typical of the latter are Ethiopia’s fiery berbere and nit’er qibe (spiced butter), Yemen’s hawayij, and various Indian blends for flavoring sambar, rasam, and other bean-based dishes. The Anglo-Indian invention curry powder wouldn’t exist without turmeric’s golden glow and fragrance. Morocco’s famed ras al hanout, a medieval blend of from five to fifty spices, often includes turmeric. In Georgia (of the former Soviet Union), turmeric is a common component of the traditional spice medley khmeli suneli.
When turmeric is used alone, it is usually to tame fishy flavors, much as ginger does, or to season and color rice. In Indonesia, this splendid rice (called nasi kunyit) is served at weddings, funerals, births, and most other important celebrations.
Dried turmeric is more commonly used in most of these cuisines, although fresh rhizomes are favored throughout Southeast Asia, where the soups and curries possess an extra aromatic dimension.
If you’re unfamiliar with turmeric’s flavor, begin by adding a pinch to sautéed or steamed vegetables, especially carrots, potatoes, peas, and cauliflower and other members of the cabbage family. It gives a subtle warm note to salad dressings and wine-poached poultry and fish. In any of these, dried turmeric will lend a delicate touch while fresh turmeric will give a tangier taste. For pickling, use the more camphorous fresh spice.
If you like curried dishes, toss out your dull curry powders and begin custom-blending your own. All Indian cookbooks contain numerous curry recipes in which turmeric provides one note of a dish’s spicy chords. Use dried but freshly ground turmeric for these. Thai, Indonesian, Vietnamese, and Burmese cookbooks likewise include an abundance of turmeric-flavored recipes. Most suggest dried turmeric powder, assuming that’s the only form American cooks can buy. Substitute an equal amount of the fresh spice for a more pungent taste. Use a light hand with both dried and fresh turmeric; in excess, its bitterness predominates.
Turmeric thrives in hot, wet climates. Florida and Hawaii are natural homes for it, but it also grows exuberantly in the southwestern deserts if it is adequately watered. In fact, most Sun Belt gardeners can grow turmeric in the warmest parts of their gardens. In colder regions, you can grow turmeric in a greenhouse, or you can start plants indoors and set them out after the weather warms; in either case, they won’t achieve the size of plants grown in the ground in hot climates.
Turmeric is propagated by replanting fingers broken from the mother plant. It rarely flowers in the United States, and any seeds it may set produce inferior rhizomes.
The cheapest way to start turmeric plants is from fresh roots, which can be purchased from an Oriental produce market. Select plump, crisp fingers with many “eyes” just beginning to pop out of each finger.
If fresh rhizomes are unavailable, you may order plants by mail. In this case, be sure to save your first (and possibly second) year’s crop for next year’s planting stock rather than harvesting it for your kitchen.
Under ideal, hot-climate conditions, plant the fingers in either full or filtered sun as soon as there is no danger of a hard frost. Set them in fairly fertile, well-drained soil, 3 to 4 inches deep and about 1 foot apart. Water frequently enough to keep the soil moist but not waterlogged; the latter condition can rot the rhizomes. Shoots should appear in four to twelve weeks, depending on temperature. Rhizomes planted later in the season will sprout faster. The shoots rapidly throw up handsome 2- to 4-foot-high, 8-inch-wide lance-shaped leaves. Turmeric’s stature and broad, glossy leaves make it an ideal background plant.
In colder climates, plant the fingers in sterile, well-drained potting soil at least 2 inches deep and 6 inches apart. Put the pots in a warm place and keep the soil moist but not soggy. When the weather warms, place the pots outdoors in a hot spot. Keep them watered and transplant into a warm part of your garden as soon as the shoots reach 4 to 6 inches tall.
During the growing season, give the plants enough water to keep the leaves from drooping. Watch for slugs: they have a predilection for turmeric plants.
Harvest the rhizomes in the late fall as soon as the leaves die back. Dig a broad circle around the plant, taking care not to cut into the rhizomes. Lift the clump and shake off as much dirt as possible. Swish it in a bucket of water and, if necessary, gently brush off any remaining dirt. Keep the clump intact and let it air-dry for several hours.
Place the clumps in single layers in plastic bags (punctured to provide small air holes). Store the bags in the refrigerator or a cool, moderately dry place, such as a garage floor or dry basement, until ready to divide and replant in the spring.
Storing and Preparing Turmeric
If possible, stock your kitchen with both fresh rhizomes and dried whole (or freshly ground) turmeric. Like ginger, fresh turmeric can be stored in the refrigerator, loosely wrapped in a plastic bag, for a month or two. For longer storage, freeze the rhizomes. They’ll become mushy when thawed but will still be pungent. Alternatively, you can peel them, pack them into a glass jar, fill it with vodka, and store it, covered, in the refrigerator. The rhizomes will remain pungent for at least a year.
Fresh turmeric is much softer and less fibrous than fresh ginger and therefore is easier to mince or mash. You can also pulverize larger amounts in an electric coffee mill or blender, or mash small pieces through a garlic press. To retain the most pungency, grind it just before using.
Dried turmeric is also more pungent if it is pulverized just before using. Unfortunately, dried rhizomes are as tough as titanium unless you rehydrate them in hot water for at least one hour before grinding. Soak them several hours longer if you plan to mash them in a mortar.
Both methods produce a gritty texture, so if you need a fine powder, buy the commercially ground turmeric—the freshest you can find. Check Middle Eastern and Asian markets as well as health food and spice stores: they may turn over turmeric more rapidly than the average supermarket. Buy no more than a three-month supply. It is cheap, so you can afford to toss out any elderly spice. Store powdered turmeric in a cool, dark place in airtight amber jars to protect it from oxidation and sunlight.
Mail-order Sources for Turmeric
• Frontier Herbs, PO Box 118, Norway, IA 52318. Catalog free. Dried whole rhizomes.
• Companion Plants, 7247 N. Coolville Ridge Rd., Athens, OH 45701. Catalog $2. Turmeric plants.
• Richters, Goodwood, ON L0C 1A0, Canada. Catalog $2.50. Turmeric plants.
• Well-Sweep Herb Farm, 317 Mt. Bethel Rd., Port Murray, NJ 07865. Catalog $2. Turmeric plants.
Cornelia Carlson’s obsession with herbs and spices began in the mint-scented tangle of an abandoned herb garden behind her childhood home. In the decades since, she has planted extensive herb gardens in the Snow Belt, coastal California, and the southwestern desert. Currently living in Tucson, Arizona, Cornelia has a bachelor’s degree in food research and master’s and doctoral degrees in biochemistry. She’s now at work on a cookbook.