A spice derived from a bright orange rhizome, turmeric (TER-muh-rihk) enjoys a legacy as colorful as the root itself. Most commonly identified with India, turmeric plays heavily into Hindu religious rituals and wedding ceremonies. Historically, a tincture of turmeric has been rubbed on the abdomen of laboring women and applied to a newborn’s umbilical cord to impart “golden luck.”
Turmeric is practically requisite in curry powder—it’s what gives curry its distinctive golden color. Since it’s relatively subtle, it’s been used to color butter and cheese; that plastic squeeze bottle of “American-style” prepared mustard in your fridge probably gets its color from turmeric. Cooks have long substituted turmeric for the far more expensive saffron, but apart from color, the two have nothing in common. But turmeric shouldn’t be discounted. Its flavor is pleasantly warm and curiously astringent, and its aroma is exotic enough to have been used in ancient perfumes.
The supposed healing properties of turmeric have been touted for 4000 years. The Greek pharmacologist Dioscorides claimed it would both heighten the appetite and quell the subsequent pains of over-eating. And long-held medicinal benefits are being spun anew: Modern research suggests that turmeric (albeit in quantities more substantial than your recipe probably calls for) is useful in the treatment of arthritis, curbing both pain and inflammation. Additionally it appears to promote the formation of new blood vessels and be helpful in the treatment of maladies ranging from breast cancer to Alzheimer’s to psoriasis.
—By Jo Marshall, a food writer in Deephaven, Minn.