Turmeric is a flowering plant of the ginger family. Whilst the leaves are occasionally used, it is the rhizome that produces the spice we use.
Turmeric is native to India and its use in Indian cooking is almost ubiquitous. It is either featured, in fish dishes for example, or as an important ingredient in spice mixes and masalas.
Turmeric has an active compound called curcumin, which is the source of its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It is said to mitigate a variety of conditions, such as jaundice, blood in the urine, haemorrhaging, toothaches, bruises, chest pain, flatulence and colic. Because of this, turmeric is always used in lentil dishes to aid digestion. Further, it is a key ingredient in the Ayurvedic pharmacopeia, the comprehensive holistic health care list that dates back to at least 500 BCE.
Be aware that curcumin is also used a dye – which is why you can stain almost anything with turmeric.
Fresh turmeric looks a lot like ginger with vibrant orange flesh. It is available from good greengrocers year-round. Typical uses of fresh turmeric are in tempering oil, where it is used in a similar way to ginger. It is also used to make pickles.
Fresh turmeric will keep in a refrigerator for around two weeks, although it will deteriorate quickly in flavour, pungency and quality over that time.
The most common form of turmeric is the powder made from dried and ground roots. This turmeric powder gives a beautiful yellow colour to any food cooked with it. It has a peppery, earthy, musky and warm flavour. Fresh turmeric and ground turmeric are not interchangeable.
There are two grades of turmeric powder generally available. Madras turmeric, which is the turmeric commonly available at supermarkets, and Alleppey turmeric, which is a little harder to find.
Madras turmeric is pale-yellow. It’s best used when you want the yellow colour and not necessarily a strong flavour. The less robust flavour suits much northern Indian cuisine.
Alleppey turmeric is a much darker yellow. Its name comes from the port of Alleppey in South India where turmeric was originally traded. It is used in most South Indian cooking. Alleppey turmeric is the best turmeric to use in curries because of its richer and more earthy taste.
Turmeric pairs well with ginger and goes well with fish and seafood. Many of the fish recipes in this book start by tossing the fish in a mix of turmeric and Kashmiri chilli powder. Aside from the flavour this imparts, it also gives a warm orange colour to the flesh.
Be careful when using turmeric – if you use too much it will overpower a dish, and give an unpleasant, almost medicinal flavour to the food.
Did I mention it has a great ability to stain? Make sure you clean up any spillage immediately and be cautious about getting it on your skin. It takes a long time to wear off.
Fresh turmeric is available from good greengrocers. Ground Alleppy turmeric will almost certainly require a visit to your spice merchant or good Indian grocer. Ground Madras turmeric is commonly available from supermarkets. Regardless of the source, if it doesn’t specifically say Alleppy turmeric, it is Madras turmeric.