Turmeric, for me, is such an every day spice I haven’t really given it much consideration for a post. You can find it in grocery stores these days, and it’s actually an herb in my daily vitamin! But chatting with some friends, it seems that not a lot of people know about the spice – from its flavor to its medicinal characteristics.
First things first, turmeric is a rhizome or a root that looks a heck of a lot like ginger. I think that’s a bit surprising to some. The root is boiled, dried, cleaned, and crushed to powder form to get the signature deep orange-yellow spice we’re all used to seeing. In some cultures, Malay and Indonesian specifically, even the leaves of the plant are used, in stir fry recipes or to wrap around something before cooking.
Second, its flavor is a bit bitter, hitting you at the back of your tongue, earthy, and (to me) distinctly mustard-esque. It’s used a lot in East Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern, and African cooking (and dyeing!) for its color. Do NOT let it get on your clothes. I’ve learned the hard way: it’s not coming out. But its flavor is an aggregator – it helps meld together the aromatics like onion and garlic and the various spices in a dish.
When I was in India, every cook I worked with talked about the medicinal uses of turmeric. As an antiseptic, many cooks put turmeric directly on raw fish or chicken to kill bacteria before cooking. They also believed that the spice is excellent for digestion and that that is one of the main reasons for its inclusions in curries. Other cooks told me about its anti-inflammatory properties. A cold cloth with turmeric is just the trick for a kitchen burn or a cut from the slip of a knife (…they also mentioned that would hurt like all get out). My vitamin includes the spice for its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties but also because the active ingredient, curcumin, is believed to be a strong antioxidant.
I personally like turmeric in soups, braises, with a chili crab stir fry, in rice with some cinnamon and cardamom. It’s a great spice to play around with. I use super small amounts – ¼ teaspoon to a ½ teaspoon max. That’s all you need, or you risk the bitterness becoming more dominant in a dish.