As the weather turns cooler I dream of foods that are piping hot inside and out: warm and spicy, spreading comforting heat from my zombie-blue fingertips (my hands get cold as soon as the temperature threatens to drop below 60 degrees) to my numb toes. My favorite is curry, be it Indian, Thai or Japanese, and it was while I was investigating new recipes to try that I stumbled across turmeric (Curcuma longa). Distracted from my desire for mouthwatering spice blends, I decided to investigate.
Turmeric powder is one of the primary ingredients in curry powder.
Photo by Carlos Lorenzo/ Courtesy Flickr
Curcuma longa is one of the primary ingredients in standard curry powders and the source of its bright yellow coloring. Native to South Asia, this herb’s introduction to the West came primarily through dyes and occasionally food as a cheaper substitute for saffron in medieval Europe. It is the yellow that tints many prepared mustard condiments, butters, cheeses, yogurts, pickles and fruit drinks today, and it is still used in dyeing saris in India and Pakistan.
Turmeric has long been used as a fabric and food dye.
Photo by PrincessFroglips/ Courtesy Flickr
In addition to its yummy hot-pepper flavor, this member of the ginger family has recently been noticed by Western scientists for the curcumin it contains—a compound that has been shown to suppress tumors, boost the cognitive strength of people struggling with Alzheimer’s and kill cancer cells. Asian medicinal practices, such as the Indian Ayurvedic tradition, have long recognized turmeric as a useful healing herb, but the benefits were largely ignored by Western culture until well into the 20th century. Unlike ginger, it’s only recently that turmeric has joined the ranks of our Western spice racks and acknowledged health-boosting herbs.
As a healing agent, turmeric has anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antifungal properties. It boosts the immune system and is rich in antioxidants that aid in the body’s fight against cancer, heart failure, cataracts, dementia and ulcers. Recent studies show it to be effective in reducing arthritis pain and lowering cholesterol levels.
According to Ayurvedic practice, turmeric is a whole-body-cleanser, and an infusion of turmeric and hot milk is a common home remedy for colds and coughs. (Recommended Dose: 1 teaspoon turmeric per cup of milk.) This herb has long been used in India to prevent food poisoning and other digestive disorders, and it is traditionally considered to keep disease away from the body.
At a traditional Bengali wedding, turmeric paste is applied to the face of both the bride and groom.
Photo by Rajiv Ashrafi/ Courtesy Flickr
Chinese medicine historically used turmeric to treat wounds, primary syphilis, menstrual disorders and digestive worm poison. Today, Chinese scientists consider turmeric to aid the flow of qi (a body’s natural energy) and blood; they use it (in conjunction with other herbs) to treat both viral hepatitis and pain of the chest and abdomen.
If you would like to use turmeric as a health measure, try the infusion mention above (up to three cups a day), or consider a capsule supplement (400mg 3 times per day). Of course, my favorite way to reap the benefits of this rhizome is through the spicy goodness of a bowl of curry. But be cautious, as turmeric can upset the stomach if consumed in large amounts and may interfere with prescription and over-the-counter drugs. If you have any concerns, speak with a health care professional.
Resources: The Healing Power of Chinese Herbs and Medicinal Recipes by Jouseph P. Hou, PhD and Youyu Jin, PhD.
Ayurvedic Herbs: A Clinical Guide to the Healing Plants of Indian Medicine by M.S. Premila, PhD
The New Healing Herbs by Michael Castleman