While curry is a simmered, delightful mix of a number of different spices, turmeric is responsible for its characteristic taste. Turmeric has been used in cultures around the world, particularly in India, as a culinary spice and for its purported health benefits.
What is Turmeric?
Turmeric is the root of the Curcuma longa plant, which belongs to the ginger family and is a perennial. It is native to Southern Asia and requires a hot climate and substantial rainfall to grow. Turmeric powder is produced by boiling the root and then drying it, after which the root is ground up into powder.
Used in Indian medicine for thousands of years
While there is no certified date of discovery of the various uses of turmeric, it has been used in Siddha and Ayurvedic medicine, traditional South Indian medicine systems, for thousands of years. It was found on what appeared to be cooking pots near New Delhi which were dated 2,500 BCE and its use in Indian medicine is catalogued as early as 500 BCE.
While scientific studies have not been able to back up its use in modern medicine, it was used for many purposes in Indian medicine. A skin paste was made out of it for skin conditions, inhaling its incense was said to help congestion, and turmeric juice was drunk to alleviate bruising and to help wounds heal.
Turmeric medallions were said to ward off evil spirits, and Indian brides were given a string dyed with turmeric to signify that they were capable of running a household. The sacrosanct nature of turmeric in the Hindu religion was likely a result of its many uses in cooking, as a dye, and in Indian medicine. Today, turmeric is almost synonymous with India, even though it was adopted by many other cultures who imported it from Southeast Asia.
Circumin is a compound found only in turmeric, and generally makes up about 3% of powdered turmeric. First isolated in 1815, it has been used as a dye, a supplement, for food flavouring, and in cosmetics as well as many other uses. While Aruyvedic medicine names circumin as an important active compound of turmeric, this has not been proven by modern medicine.
The best way to get your turmeric: food
While its effects have not been proven, turmeric is non-toxic and is generally very tasty when consumed with food. Indians consumed their turmeric mostly in food, and Indian medicine recommends regular consumption of food with turmeric. The more curry you have in your diet, the better, according to Indian medicine.
Food and drink is a safe way to consume turmeric. If the thought of a chicken curry every night feels boring, try making some curried vegetables as a side dish. If you make a big batch, leftovers will reheat well throughout the week. Turmeric juice has also become popular recently, and works blends well in a smoothie or in supplement drinks. You can find turmeric juice at most East Asian grocers and natural health food stores.
Taste and utility are behind the long veneration of turmeric in Indian culture, and you can bring a little of it to your own life by eating or drinking it.