Origins: This perennial herbaceous plant is a tuber from the ginger family and grows wild in south and southeast India. It needs warm temperatures and lots of rain in order to thrive; for most of us, it’s not necessarily an easy add to the garden plot.
Why/how did we start eating it: Initially, turmeric was used for dyes before it was used for food, spice or other medicinal purposes. In India, it’s been employed for 4,000 years in traditional Ayurvedic medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for stomach and liver problems. In the kitchen, it’s commonly thought of as a spice.
How it’s used: The uses for turmeric are many and varied. Ground turmeric, which comes from the rhizome, is the most widely available, used in curries, soups and stews. With its yellow-orange hue, it lends color and flavor as a primary ingredient in curry powders. The root is also available and should be peeled to reveal its pumpkin color, then grated or minced, before cooking with it. Less traditional incorporations: I cut off a nub about an inch long, skin and all, and chuck it into my morning nutritional powerhouse smoothie in the Vitamix, in addition to using it in cooking. How to make tumeric tea
Neka Pasquale, an herbalist, acupuncturist and certified Chinese nutritionist and founder of Urban Remedy, “In traditional Chinese medicine, turmeric is . . . used to stimulate circulation, promote menses, relieve pain and swelling due to trauma and relieve epigastric pain,” she says. It is fat soluable; she recommends combining it with coconut oil, avocado, soups with fats, smoothies with nut milk and ghee (clarified butter.) But, she says, it’s not 100 percent essential, because TCM puts turmeric to work without fat, in combo with other effective herbs, with great results. She employs it in a few of her company’s juices and in a tincture.
It’s also possible to use it topically. Pasquale suggests combining the powder, citrus juice and salt and applying directly to sprains or areas of inflammation. Monica Aggarwal, M.D., director of echocardiography at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, touts turmeric’s anti-bacterial and anti-viral benefits, too. “In India, back in the day, if someone cut their skin, they’d put ground turmeric on it,” she says.
How to purchase: You can find ground turmeric with the spices in the supermarket or at specialty grocers, especially Indian ones. My local Wegmans sells the root right alongside other specialty items from Melissa’s, such as yucca and sugar cane and so forth.
Sensory experience: Ground turmeric is yellowy-orange and smells bitter and pungent. The raw, root form offers more aromatic nuances; it resembles ginger and smells earthy, slightly peppery. Either way, it’s a warming spice.
Nutrition and other benefits: The compound that makes turmeric’s magic is curcumin, which you may have seen in capsule form in health food stores, but Dr. Aggarwal, who is the rare physician who believes in “diet over drugs” whenever possible, recommends her patients just start adding it their diets. “There’s nothing to lose,” she says. While there have been some small-scale studies on turmeric’s benefits—she mentions one in conjunction with rheutmatoid arthritis, which she has—it’s not likely we’ll see extensive studies. She puts it bluntly: “It’s not financially lucrative to do studies on turmeric.” Besides, we have those thousands of years of Ayurveda and TCM as evidence, she says.