Tales of Turmeric

Turmeric is native to me and is something I have been familiar with since I was a little girl growing up in India. Turmeric was an integral part of my household and culture. It was always there in our masala dabbas—spice boxes displaying vivid colors and sweet and spicy aromas. Turmeric’s bright golden color was a common sight to my young eyes in our kitchens, in our courtyards, and in our temples. I inhaled the spice’s pungent aroma during rituals and tasted its complex notes in my family meals.

When I created a line of custom Indian spice blends and wrote my cookbook, Turmeric & Spice, my goal was to help people cook authentic, delicious, healthy Indian food using an easy step-by-step approach. I decided to call my cookbook Turmeric & Spice for several reasons.

Turmeric is essential in all of our Indian temples; it is always an offering in every ceremony. When you walk into a temple, you present your offering, such as money, flowers, or fruit, and they give you a piece of coconut or something sweet, as well as a small package of turmeric powder to put on your forehead on your third eye as a blessing.

This popular herb and spice that has been used in India for thousands of years is an indispensable staple in Indian kitchens. Sometimes called the saffron of India, turmeric is a rhizome or root. It comes in two forms: ground powder or fresh. Its bright golden-orange color gives curries, marinades, vegetables, eggs, tea, and milk an attractive color. Its taste is bitter, pungent, and astringent, so use sparingly.

“Spice” in my cookbook title refers to the importance of spices in Indian culture where turmeric and spice go together like salt and pepper. Turmeric is in our roots, literally and figuratively. The spice is grown in Gujarat and Rajasthan where it is processed by village ladies. They sit around large bowls full of the dried spice and sing as they break down the turmeric with wooden poles. It is ingrained in the culture in more ways than one.

I have vivid memories from my childhood of going to the busy spice markets with my mother and grandmother to purchase ingredients to make pickles, condiments, and chutneys. I can still remember the overwhelming aroma of spices wafting through the air even before we saw them arranged in a colorful display. It was a sight to behold the golden turmeric, red chili powder, cinnamon, coriander powder, cumin powder, and the list goes on. In those days, the spices were exposed to the air. Recently, I went to a spice market in India, and the spices are now stored for sale in airtight containers to avoid contamination. I was disappointed for a moment, but I will forever cherish the fragrance of that memory.

In India, all of the different forms of spices are used: fresh root, ground powder, dried bark, berries, and flowers, or whole pod, seed, and leaf. Cinnamon is the bark of a tree. Garlic, turmeric, and ginger are roots that are used fresh or dried and ground into powder. There are flowers such as saffron and aromatics such as coriander. There are vines that grow berries which are then dried to make pepper. It is essential to have these spices if you want to cook authentic Indian cuisine, as well as take advantage of all of the benefits consuming a wide variety of spices provides.

Now that turmeric has recently become an immensely trendy spice, the general public is more familiar with it than ever before, and this worthy spice is enjoying time in the spotlight, and for good reason. The ingredient in turmeric that is beneficial to health is curcumin. Contributing to turmeric’s popularity are studies illustrating the many health and wellness benefits of turmeric curcumin.

Turmeric was India’s humble cure, long before this spice was recognized in the West. Recently, science has affirmed what the ancient Indians knew about the benefits of turmeric for healing and well-being. Turmeric has gained immense popularity and set the world ablaze with its properties of healing, well-being, and disease prevention, which have helped reverse some chronic and debilitating diseases with no adverse effects. It is now becoming a household name worldwide.

Since turmeric was something I knew from birth, I admit during my younger years, I somewhat took for granted its amazing properties that were evident in our customs and traditions. Later in my life when I studied Ayurveda, I began to appreciate those principles I grew up with. My studies provided acknowledgment and validation for the importance of these practices and philosophies. I seek to bring awareness to this lifestyle that I was given—that I inherited.

Google “turmeric for health,” and you’ll find tons of articles lauding the wonders of turmeric, including some that connect directly to Indian rituals. For example, one of my earliest memories was when my sister was born—and I’m sure my mom did this for me, also—there was the early morning ritual of massaging the baby with a paste of yogurt, turmeric, and besan (fine garbanzo bean flour). These natural ingredients were gently massaged into the baby’s skin, and then the baby was swaddled. This ritual serves to bless and cleanse the baby. Now you will find an endless list of articles touting the benefits of turmeric to preventing skin disorders, as well as many other ailments, for babies and adults alike. https://www.parentune.com/parent-blog/turmeric-benefits-for-infants/3916

Turmeric and yogurt are great for giving skin a radiant glow. Yogurt’s lactic acid helps exfoliate skin, diminishing fine lines. And turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties that decrease skin irritation that can lead to redness. Consuming turmeric has a long list of benefits, too. So for centuries, people who participate in these rituals have seen with their own eyes and felt in their own bodies positive physiological and psychological effects of these rituals.

In another Indian ritual involving turmeric, called haldi or pithi, the day before a couple’s wedding, the turmeric and yogurt mixture is applied to the bride and groom as a blessing and cleansing ritual. And to wish a pregnant woman well, relatives and friends will put turmeric and kumkum, which is a red powder made from turmeric, on her head as a blessing.

Haldi Doodh, which literally translates to “turmeric milk” now has a fancy title called Golden Milk. As a child, I was forced to drink this haldi doodh when I got sick with a fever or cold. I dreaded it when my mother walked into the room with a glass of warm turmeric milk with a dollop of ghee and black pepper. Then she stood there in front of me and watched me gag and choke until I finished the whole glass. Surprisingly, a couple doses of this cured the cold without any other medicine.

I recall another incident where turmeric came to the rescue. My grandma cut herself while cooking in the kitchen, and her wound was bleeding profusely. A thick paste was quickly made with powdered turmeric and applied to the wound, and the bleeding miraculously stopped. Not only does it take the place of a band-aid but it also has antiseptic qualities to prevent infection.

I grew up with these ancient rituals, customs, and traditions that Indians have been doing for thousands of years. Because they have been doing them for so long, some may have forgotten the value of these practices, but they are still doing them because they provide tangible benefits. That is why in India, people don’t ask why a certain method works. They just know it does because it’s been working for 5,000 years. Now those ancient remedies are catching on. It’s time to discover all of the amazing things turmeric can do, along with other spices that bring joy in a lot of ways you may not have imagined.