You’ve heard of Marco Polo, right? An Italian merchant famous for his epic adventures and the stories he told of them. His manuscripts describe many of the fascinating people, places, and things he encountered along the way. In 1280, he wrote of his travels to China: “There is also a vegetable that has all the properties of true saffron, as well as the smell and color, and yet it is not really saffron.” This "vegetable" he was marveling at was turmeric.
Between medicinal use, religious significance, and many food applications, the history of turmeric goes back at least 4,000 years. It is believed that turmeric originated in Southeast Asia, but today we most often associate turmeric with Indian cuisine. Right now, India produces the majority of the world’s turmeric crop and consumes 80% of it.
Here's everything else you ever wanted to know about turmeric:
The Turmeric Plant
Turmeric is a flowering plant in the ginger family. Like with ginger, the roots of the turmeric plant are thickened by food reserves (rhizomes) to store starches, proteins, and other nutrients. The rhizomes are tuberous with rough, segmented skin and smaller “fingers” that branch off. Turmeric plants are harvested annually for their rhizomes, some of which are then used to reseed for the following season.
Higher quality turmeric is made from the smaller “fingers” of the main rhizome — these have more flavor and better coloring. The ground turmeric we carry is this higher grade turmeric.
You might occasionally hear the phrase “turmeric root”, which confuses things a bit. The turmeric plant itself is an herb; the part that we use is a rhizome. A rhizome is not a root. Rhizomes are actually modifications to the root system. Therefore, turmeric is not a root.
While we’re clearing things up, let’s answer this one: is turmeric a vegetable? Sure, by the technical definition of “any plant we eat is a vegetable” turmeric would qualify. But by the grocery store definition of vegetable (according to Merriam Webster Dictionary) — “herbaceous plant grown for the edible part which is eaten as part of a meal” — turmeric does not fit the bill. No one is sitting down to a bowl of turmeric. The point is, what something is sometimes depends on how it's used. A chile pepper is a fruit until it’s dried and ground into paprika — then it’s a spice. Turmeric is a rhizome which is primarily used as a spice.
To make turmeric powder, the rhizomes are boiled for about 45 minutes and then immediately placed in the sun to dry. Once the moisture content is between 8-10% the turmeric rhizomes are polished to remove skin and then ground into a powder. Like any spice, over time the turmeric powder will lose flavor, however, its bright yellow-orange color will always remain.
Curcumin is the bright yellow chemical produced by turmeric and some other plants. According to historians, the very first use of turmeric was actually as a dye. Today, curcumin is still used for its vibrant hue in food colorings and some cosmetics.
What Does Turmeric Taste Like?
Turmeric has a flavor that is warm, bitter, earthy and musky. It has a subtle “bite” that some describe as black pepper-like. You may notice hints of citrus and ginger (turmeric is part of the ginger family after all). The aroma of turmeric is woody and mustard-like.
Each year, Americans spend over $650 million on botanical supplements used to fight the many diseases caused by inflammation. Turmeric is believed to be a powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant by many alternative healing practitioners — from Chinese medicine to Ayurveda. It’s used by naturopaths to fight chronic inflammation, reduce depression symptoms, and treat skin conditions. There have been several randomized clinical trials resulting in scientific evidence that supports the efficacy of turmeric extract in treatment of arthritis as an alternative to NSAID drugs.(1) It’s also been shown to provide relief to those suffering from Crohn’s disease.
Turmeric honey is a popular trend in the health community that actually comes from an ancient recipe known as “Golden Honey”. Turmeric honey is believed to boost immunity, regulate blood sugar, alleviate allergy symptoms, and improve skin conditions. Those who swear by turmeric honey use it in tea, lemonade, smoothies, baked goods, and on toast.
Turmeric tea is another trendy concoction that has been around for centuries. Simply boil 4 cups of water, add one teaspoon of ground turmeric, simmer, and strain. Then add honey or lemon to taste and enjoy!
Turmeric milk is pretty similar to turmeric tea except you would use milk instead of water. Also, turmeric milk will often include other spices like cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and ginger.
Recipes Using Turmeric
There are thousands of recipes that use turmeric. In fact, turmeric is the main ingredient in most curry powder blends. It’s why curries are so often yellow. It’s also why this list could go on for days... But hey, we’ll give it a try.
Turmeric is used in various soups, stews, dals, and rice dishes around the world. Turmeric is a key ingredient in Moroccan chicken, Indian lamb korma, and Persian green bean rice stew (loobia polo). You’ll find it in Chicken Tikka Masala, Aloo Gobi, Chana Masala, Butter Chicken, Chicken Biryani, and many other classic Indian dishes. We use it in our recipe for Dijon-Style Mustard. Turmeric can be used to make teas (as mentioned earlier), cocktails, salad dressings, and smoothies. It’s also a fun addition to meat marinades and dry rubs.
Turmeric pairs well with so many flavors. Its earthy bitterness perfectly complements the sweetness of coconut milk or honey, the bite of cayenne or chile peppers, the acidity of lemons or tomatoes, and the flavor complexities of things like garlic and onions and one of turmeric’s favorite companions, green cardamom.
Turmeric is sometimes used as a substitute for saffron, because saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. The flavor is quite different but it’s close enough if you don’t want to splurge on the real thing!