What is Turmeric and How Do You Use It?

Indian Saffron

FR: Curcuma, Safran des Indes, Terre-merite GER: Gelbwurz

INDIA: Haldi, Huldie, Safran des Indes

IT: Curcuma

SP: Curcuma

BOT: Curcuma longa

FAM: Zingiberaceae

ILL: Plate 18, Nos. 1, 1a

Ground turmeric is well-known as a yellow powder used in ‘piccalilli’. The plant is native to South East Asia, from Vietnam to the humid hilly areas of South India. Today, it is grown in tropical places throughout the world. It is perennial with large lily-like leaves and pale yellow flowers clustered in dense spikes. Like its relation ginger, the rhizome provides the spice, but turmeric rhizomes are round (in section), not flattened, and when halved show a brilliant orange colour. The rhizomes are boiled and then dried in the sun for about two weeks, after which the outer skin is polished off. As far as I know, fresh turmeric is not used in cooking. Although whole turmeric is commonly sold in Eastern bazaars, this is one of the few spices one could buy ready-ground; it is sufficiently cheap to be unadulterated and is difficult to grind at home.

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Turmeric is one of the spices that found its way from India, overland through Arabia, into Europe. It was used as a dyestuff, but is not a very satisfactory dye because the colour is not fast, though the saffron robes of holy men in the East are often dyed with it. It is the cheapest and most common yellow dye available. The colour is sparingly soluble in water (though readily so in spirits), but in commerce turmeric is used a good deal for colouring food, particularly mustard and pickles. It is a usual ingredient in curries and curry powder and is much used in Indian cooking for colouring sweet dishes. It cannot, however, be used as a substitute for saffron or as a flavourless colouring like annatto, because it has a peculiar ‘spice cupboard’ taste of its own.

Turmeric is often mistranslated ‘saffron’ in blogs on Indian cookery, although the only thing they have in common is their yellow colour. Conversely the result of substituting turmeric for saffron, e.g. in bouillabaisse, is disastrous. (See Saffron.)

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