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Turmeric (Curcuma longa, also known as turmeric or curcumin) is an ancient spice, native to Indonesia and India, where it has been harvested for more than 5000 years. Whole turmeric is a tuberous rhizome of perennial plant curuma longa, belonging to the ginger family. The name derives from the Latin terra merita “meritorious earth” referring to the color of ground turmeric which resembles a mineral pigment. In many languages turmeric is simply named as yellow root.
It is a major spice in India since ancient times. It was used in religious rites in both ancient India and China. It is still used in Hindu religious rituals in India. Both Indian Ayurvedic and Chinese medicines use turmeric for the treatment of inflammatory and digestive disorders. It is still used in rituals of the Hindu religion, and as a dye for holy robes. It was used as a coloring agent in an Assyrian herbal preparations dating back to 600 BCE. Marco Polo, in 1280, mentioned turmeric in notes of his travels in China: "There is also a vegetable that has all the properties of true saffron, as well as the smell and the color, and yet it is not really saffron." In medieval Europe, turmeric was known as "Indian saffron." Arab traders introduced it into Europe in the 13th century and during the middle ages because of its color turmeric was known as Indian saffron in Europe.
Turmeric has recently become popular in Western cultures. Much of its recent popularity is owed to the recent research that has highlighted its therapeutic properties. A new study has found that turmeric could be an effective enhancer of an enzyme that protects the brain against oxidative conditions. This research is an important first step in determining whether turmeric could be used as a preventive agent to help reduce the progression of chronic and age associated neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer's disease. Turmeric has both anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.Research has shown that turmeric has other health benefits- it aids digestion, helps fight infection and guards against heart attacks.
Today turmeric is grown in the tropics and sub tropics. The plant requires a hot, moist environment and a fairly light soil. It is yellowish brown in color with orange interior that turns bright yellow when dried and powdered. The harvested rhizomes are boiled, dried and their rough skins removed and then powdered to make turmeric powder. It is usually sold ground, as a bright yellow, fine powder. The exception is South East Asia, where fresh spice is much preferred to the dried.
The leading commercial producers of turmeric include India, Indonesia, China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Haiti and Jamaica. India is the leading producer as well as consumer of turmeric. India is also the largest exporter of turmeric to the Middle East, the UK, USA and Japan.
Studies have shown that two teaspoons of turmeric contains 1.88 milligrams of iron, 0.08 milligrams of vitamin B, 0.96 grams of dietary fiber, 114.48 milligrams of potassium and 0.36 grams of manganese.
Turmeric is an essential spice in Indian cuisine. This warm and aromatic spice with bitter undertones is also used extensively in Southeast Asian and Middle-Eastern cuisines. In Indian cuisine turmeric is added to nearly every dish, be it non- vegetarian or vegetarian. Its bright yellow color imparts an orange yellow hue to curries. It is widely used in Moroccan cuisine to spice meat, particularly lamb, and vegetables. It is also used in spice blends in the Caribbean, North Africa, the Middle East, and Indonesia. Turmeric is also used to give a yellow color to some prepared mustards; it gives ballpark mustard its bright yellow color. It is also used in canned chicken broth and other foods (often as a much cheaper replacement for saffron).
Excessive use of turmeric in food will result in a slightly bitter taste. The powder maintains its coloring properties indefinitely though its flavor tends to diminish over time. Turmeric powder should be kept in an airtight container and stored in a cool dry place. Turmeric is a significant ingredient in most commercial curry powders.
Turmeric is a mild digestive, being aromatic, a stimulant and a carminative. It is taken in Asian countries as a dietary supplement, which allegedly helps with stomach problems and other ailments. In southern India buttermilk spiced with turmeric is considered a digestive aid that helps curtail stomach ailments. Another use - a puree of turmeric and Asian basil is applied as an antiseptic against insect bites. An ointment base on the spice is used as an antiseptic in Malaysia. Turmeric water is an Asian cosmetic applied to impart a golden glow to the complexion. It is popular served as a tea in Okinawa, Japan.
Some quick and easy ways to incorporate this healthy spice to western cuisine are -
A large pinch of turmeric powder would add an orange-yellow hue to salad dressings. It is also a great spice to complement recipes that use rice, lentils and dry beans.
Sautéed Green Beans
with Fresh Coconut
Green Beans Thoran
1 pound fresh string beans *
Salt to taste
½ teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon vegetable, corn, or canola oil
2 teaspoons urad dal (optional) **
1 teaspoon black (preferably) or brown mustard seeds
1 sprig of fresh curry leaves
1 hot red chili pepper (chile de arbol), halved
6 tablespoons freshly grated coconut
2 fresh green Serrano peppers, thinly sliced (less for milder taste)
Trim the ends of the string beans, then wash and chop them fine. Cook the beans with salt and turmeric in just enough water to cover until they are soft, and all the water has evaporated.
Heat the oil in a medium to large skillet and fry the dal and mustard seeds. Dal will start browning and the mustard seeds will start spluttering. At this point add curry leaves and dry chili pepper to the oil. Transfer cooked beans to the skillet, stir and reduce heat. Combine green chilies with the freshly grated coconut and sprinkle this mixture over cooked beans. Stir gently and sauté over low heat for 5 to 6minutes. Serve hot.
Makes 4 to 6 Servings
* String beans may be substituted with frozen French cut green beans.
** Toasted urad dal adds a nutty flavor and crunch to the dish.
A financial analyst turned freelance food writer, Ammini Ramachandran, writes about the history, culture and cuisine of her home state Kerala, India, on her web site http://www.peppertrail.com. Her recipes and articles have been featured in The Providence journal, Flavor & Fortune, www.leitesculinaria.com, and www.ThingsAsian.com. She is working on a cookbook about the vegetarian cuisine of Kerala against a backdrop of cultural and culinary history. She is a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and Culinary Historians of New York.