Turmeric- An Introduction

Turmeric in several forms

Turmeric is an essential spice in many cuisines. It comes in different forms and it well worth learning how to use this versatile ingredient.

Most westerners are only familiar with Turmeric as the bright yellow powder on the spice shelves at their local supermarket, but most will have tasted it at one time or another. It is a regular ingredient in many commercial Curry Powders, of course, and it is commonly used to add taste and color to many preparations of mustard, including the neon yellow variety routinely slathered on hot dogs and hamburgers.

The spice is used extensively in many cuisines, most notably in India (where it would be impossible to compile a list of dishes in which it appears), and it is also widely used throughout southern Asia and the Middle East. It is available in several different forms, aside from the ubiquitous powder, and it is well worth leaning how to purchase and use this very versatile ingredient. 

What is Turmeric?

Turmeric is derived from a plant related to ginger and, while the leaves are eaten, it is, like ginger, chiefly the underground stem portion, or ‘Rhizome’, that is used.  The rhizome is available both fresh and dried whole, as pictured above, but it is mostly used in the commonly recognized yellow powdered form.

The whole dried Turmeric rhizome is not too difficult to obtain but, unless one happens to live in a large city with a sizeable Asian population, the fresh rhizomes are not all that easy to find. As you can see, though, the fresh article is very similar in appearance to fresh ginger except that the rhizomes tend to be smaller and are more vibrantly colored, varying from a mild pinkish-tan to a rich, deep red-orange.

Peeled Fresh Turmeric
Peeled Fresh Turmeric

Here you can a few sections of the fresh Turmeric Rhizome which have been peeled for use. Although quite pale in a few areas, the appearance is very much like that of a carrot, even in cross-section. In contrast, though, as with ginger, the flesh is much denser and more fibrous.

What does Turmeric Taste Like?

The appearance, aroma and taste of Turmeric differs considerably with the form and state. Dried Turmeric has a very warm, slightly earthy smell with a faint sweetness. The taste, when used in cooked foods is somewhat pungent and peppery with ever so slight aromatically perfume-like quality. It can impart a bitterness to food if overused and this is somewhat ironic in that the spice is also touted for being able to reduce the bitterness of certain foodstuffs like Bitter Melon.

The qualities of the fresh rhizome are quite a bit different than the dried or powdered variety. The smell is much less warm and has a sharpness a bit like raw parsnip with a definite pungency that is very like Marigold flowers. These qualities are also apparent in the taste but there is also a fresh grassy aspect to it that is quite pleasant.

Rice Boiled with Slices of Fresh Turmeric
Rice Boiled with Slices of Fresh Turmeric

Here, you can see rice which was boiled with slices of the fresh Turmeric Rhizome (roughly a one-inch piece added to a cup of raw rice). This makes a good taste test for the cooked fresh article, and also illustrates the coloring potential.

Turmeric is often suggested as a substitute for saffron if that spice is unavailable and, while the flavor is very different, the color it imparts to rice dishes in particular is almost as vibrantly attractive. If the dry equivalent of a tablespoon of powder were used with a cup of rice, the color would be considerably darker than the pale gold apparent above, and the taste will differ also. With the fresh rhizome, the taste once cooked is much milder and more subtle than when tasted raw, while the powdered sort retains a sort of pungent warmth.

In the main, the fresh rhizome can be substituted for dried, both whole, or powdered, and it is generally suggested that an inch or so of the fresh is a good substitute for a tablespoon of the powder. This is not a bad rule of thumb, perhaps, but usually more fresh Turmeric will be required to produce the same color and pungency as the powdered sort.

How is Turmeric Used?

Turmeric is reported to have quite a number of medicinal applications, including being a very effective antioxidant. There is a lot conflicting and often questionable claims concerning the pharmacology (and I am not qualified to wade in on any of this) but I can say from personal experience that a little Turmeric can soothe an upset stomach.

In culinary applications, Turmeric is widely as a component of curry powders and other spice blends, both in India and elsewhere. In one of my favorite Indian cooker books, the author makes the, somewhat extravagant, claim that Turmeric features in almost every Indian dish, but then does add the rather interesting proviso that it ought not to be used in dishes comprised largely of greens. The reason for this, it is claimed, is that the spice robs the vegetables of their color. I have not noted this myself, actually, but this may well because I have only ever added Turmeric to such dishes in very small quantities.

In addition to cooked preparations, Turmeric is often used in pickles (in both raw and dried forms) and the sliced or chopped fresh rhizome is sometimes added to salads or rice. The dried rhizome can be ground (with some difficulty) and used like commercial powders, but it can also be lightly crushed to expose the interior and then added to pickles or to the boiling liquid for rice.

Turmeric Paste

Finally, the fresh Rhizome can be processed to make a Turmeric Paste for use in other recipes. This may include nothing other than a little salt for preservation, as in the example shown above, or you can also add more aromatics for a more complex spice blend. Bear in mind, though, that the paste does tend to darken as it ages, so you will get different appearance in dishes depending on how recently it was made.

Using Turmeric in Recipes

A Madras Curry Powder
A Madras Curry Powder

As mentioned, Turmeric is a common ingredient in commercial Curry Powders. The famous Madras Curry Powder, an example of which is shown above, uses Turmeric as a primary ingredient and is probably the origin of most Curry Powders used in the West.

Chicken Haldi
Chicken Haldi

The dish of Chicken Haldi shown above derives its name for the Hindi word for Turmeric. Here, the plain yellow Turmeric Powder is rubbed into the skin and flesh of Chicken legs before they are marinated with other aromatics before being oven-roasted.

Tindora Pakora
Tindora Pakora

The above dish, Tindora Pakora, also used Turmeric in powdered form. In this case, it is used as a flavoring and colorant in the batter used to coat Tindora, which are then deep-fried for an appetizer.

Pork Kebab with Fresh Turmeric
Pork Kebab with Fresh Turmeric

Here, Fresh Turmeric Paste is added to a Yoghurt based marinade, along with other spices. This blend then coats Skewers of Pork destined for the grill.

Rice with Turmeric Paste
Rice with Turmeric Paste and Apricot

Powdered Turmeric is terrific in a Pilaf, but rice takes on a lovely flavor when fresh Turmeric Paste is added during the cooking process as in this Rice with Turmeric and Apricot.

Comments, questions or suggestions most welcome!