Turmeric: The spice-and-dye

| August 27, 2009 | 5 Comments
  • 5 Comments

You know how that lovely yellow curry served up at your favorite hole-in-the-wall Indian restaurant turns your napkin, the tips of your fingers, even your plate completely yellow? Congratulations, you have had a swift, yet definitive introduction to turmeric.

Turmeric has been turning everything yellow for eons. Originally it was not used as a spice for cooking, but as a dye, primarily for coloring holy robes.

turmeric

Turmeric has been mentioned in the Vedas, the ancient Hindu sacred texts. It was associated with purity and cleansing. Even today, orthodox Hindu households will use turmeric water to purify everything from themselves, to objects in the house, to the house itself before a religious event. Along the same lines, Hindu brides and bridegrooms have a ceremony called ʻhaldiʼ (the Hindi word for turmeric and also the name of the ceremony), just before their wedding day.

This yellow-orange rhizome (that is a relative of ginger) is also credited with tons of medicinal uses. It is used as an antiseptic and an anti-inflammatory agent. When a classmate in school cut her finger during a cooking class, a well-meaning friend promptly threw some turmeric on her finger. Good move as far as providing an antiseptic, but bad for the bleeding. As it turns out, turmeric is also an anti-coagulant. Studies show that curcumin, the main flavoring compound in turmeric, is also an anti-oxidant.

Turmeric imparts a rich, ochre yellow to anything it is added to. The mustard so popular on hot dogs gets its color and part of its distinctive flavor from this golden spice. Turmeric is famous for its inclusion in curry powders. Marco Polo noted the following about turmeric when he came across it in 1280: “There is also a vegetable which has all the properties of true saffron, as well the smell and the color, and yet it is not really saffron.” This isnʼt entirely true. Turmeric and saffron can both turn things yellow. The similarity ends there. Saffron is fragrant and enchanting, its flavor elevated and floral. Turmeric smells a bit acrid; Its flavor is earthy, reminiscent of ginger and mustard.

Turmeric in Indian cooking is used primarily in its dry, ground form. Just a small amount is more than enough to convey the ginger-peppery flavor. In some parts of India, turmeric leaves are used to wrap dumplings before steaming. There is a milder flavor and flowery aspect associated with the leaves that is different from the stem from which the powdered spice is derived.

Forming the base on which several dishes can be built, turmeric, along with asafoetida and mustard seeds, are featured in countless recipes from the Indian sub-continent. Lentils, vegetables, meat and fish, all do well with a seasoning of turmeric. One of the simplest dishes featuring turmeric is also the most satisfying. Called kadhi, different regions of India have their own versions; it tends to have a thinner consistency in the south as compared to the north. It can be plain or made with chickpea dumplings (pakoras).

buttermilk kadhi

Buttermilk Kadhi

Serves: 3-4

Ingredients:
2 cups buttermilk
1/2 cup chickpea flour (besan)
1/3 tsp asafoetida
1/4 tsp turmeric
3-4 green chillies, split lengthwise (Serrano or Thai chillies)
1/2 tsp grated fresh ginger
1 tsp sugar
Salt to taste
Cilantro for garnish

For seasoning:
2 tbsp clarified butter (ghee) or canola oil
5-6 curry leaves
1 tsp asafoetida
1 tsp cumin

Preparation:

1. In a pot, combine the buttermilk, chickpea flour and 2 cups of water. Stir together to dissolve any lumps.

2. Add sugar, salt, turmeric and asafoetida and mix.

3. Move the pot onto the stove on medium high heat and bring the mixture slowly to a boil, stirring constantly. Add more water to thin it down if the mixture is still too thick. (The ideal consistency would be like tomato soup).

4. When the buttermilk comes to a boil, add the green chillies and ginger.

5. In a separate small pan, heat the ghee or oil to prepare the seasoning. Add mustard seeds (which should begin to splutter if the oil is hot enough) followed by cumin, asafoetida and curry leaves. Continue to heat gently for a few seconds to season the oil or ghee.

6. Pour the spiced oil into the buttermilk mixture. Stir everything to incorporate.

Garnish with some cilantro and serve.

Notes:
Keep stirring the mixture as it starts to boil to prevent the buttermilk from curdling and separating. Once it has reached a boil, the thickening of the chickpea flour keeps the ingredients emulsified. Though oil can be used here, try and use ghee. There is a voluptuousness of flavor that ghee brings to the dish. Also, if using oil, make sure it is neutral tasting like canola or peanut oil. An oil like olive oil tastes too strong and would disrupt the other flavors.

Though traditionally served on steamed rice, kadhi can also be served with chapatis or enjoyed just by itself. It is rare to find this dish in restaurants. This is home-cooking at its most basic. You could try variations by including some carrots or peas in it. Serve with rice and an Indian spiced pickle or papad, to create a simple and nutritious Indian comfort food dish.

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Category: asian food and drink, recipes

About the Author ()

Sharmila Badkar is an architect (and when she says architect, she means it in the bricks and mortar sense, not 1s and 0s) working in San Francisco. Sharmila and food have been far more than nodding acquaintances for most of her life. She spent many a day in her childhood sitting in the kitchen and annoying the heck out of her mother by watching what she was doing like a hawk. The fact that she tried to create early spice mixes by moving spoonfuls of one spice into another in the traditional Indian spice tin whenever she got her grubby little hands on it (the colors are so pretty!!) did not endear her much either. She was born in England, grew up in Bombay, India and has lived in the United States for quite some time so asking her where she's from is not a good idea unless you have an hour or so to spare. She can recall being picky about food, all her favourite childhood books and high school with startling clarity, yet will rarely be able to tell you the exact recipe to that dish she cooked an hour ago. This and her perennial love of writing are what led her to create Cheeky Chilli, a blog about everything and anything related with food and her life. She wishes more than anything that she could meet P.G Wodehouse and Agatha Christie but they both died just before she was born, so that's never going to happen. She lives in San Francisco with her husband Amey, best friend, assiduous critic, fellow architect and top-notch cook. He is tasked with taking fabulous photos of her cooking and always making 'mmmm' noises when he's eating it.
  • Vinay

    The original is the Dahi Kadi. Everything’s similar except for the tadka. Try a bit of garlic lightly fried in the tadka oil before adding the rest of the ingredients and also some mustard seeds.

    By the way have u done a Soul Kadi.

  • http://www.cheekychilli.com Sharmila

    That’s right Vinay. This is similar, but a more Maharashtrian way of doing the dish. I have a sol kadi recipe that you can find here.
    http://cheekychilli.wordpress.com/2009/05/26/a-delectable-pink/

  • http://none donna

    tumeric is today known to prevent alzheimers disease according to new studies

  • http://www.wanderingspoon.com Thy Tran

    Dried turmeric is more a coloring agent than an aromatic ingredient. Fortunately, here in the Bay Area, we can find the fresh rhizomes in the produce section of Asian markets. It keeps well in the freezer, and once thawed can be pureed with any sauce or grated finely. Nearly all of turmeric’s fragrance and flavor are lost during drying, so be sure to try the fresh version at least once to understand how it deepens the taste of food from India to Indonesia.

  • http://www.cheekychilli.com Sharmila

    Turmeric used in Indian cooking is primarily used in dry, powdered form. The fresh form is more prevalent in other Asian cuisines. In Indian cooking, it is used for the color and for the flavor, imparting its gingery, musky note to everything from curries to vegetables and lentils. Turmeric also helps balance other flavors which makes it a regular feature in most Indian spice mixes.
    You can find some other recipes with turmeric here.
    http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/444595/tips_and_recipes_for_cooking_with_turmeric.html
    http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Sweet-Vidalia-Onion-Relish/Detail.aspx