Turmeric was once known as ‘the poor man’s saffron’: an earthy-tasting spice good for adding golden colour to food and drinks. These days it’s just at home in the health food aisles as it is in cafes (turmeric latte, anyone?) — and that’s because of turmeric’s anti-inflammatory properties and potential health benefits. Of course, it’s not a new discovery for everyone.
“Turmeric is in 90 per cent of Indian food, and an average Indian would eat turmeric in 10 different ways in one day;” says author and chef Ragini Dey, who’s been cooking a range of Indian food in Adelaide for 27 years. In India, eating turmeric for its healthful properties has also been going on for a long time.
“All spices have some medical benefits. Years and years ago the recipes were made up by Ayurvedic priests and other medical Brahmins, not chefs, and this was all very scientifically done,” says Ragini.
So how do you use turmeric in its many forms, from fresh to powdered, and how much do you need to eat or drink if you’re interested in the health benefits?
Lesson 1: How to choose and store turmeric
Fresh turmeric looks a lot like ginger (they’re part of the same family; along with galangal) except its flesh is a vibrant orange. It’s available in shops year-round.
“Look for ones that are nice and rich in colour and a good size; about 50 millimetres long, nice and big like a finger,” says Carl Richardson, who grows organic turmeric at his Glenreagh farm in the Mid North Coast of New South Wales.
As for storage, turmeric keeps in the fridge’s crisper quite happily for three to four weeks, although it will deteriorate in flavour and quality over time. Carl advises against freezing turmeric because it will turn to mush upon defrosting.
When it comes to turmeric powder, there are two grades available. Madras turmeric, which is the turmeric commonly available at supermarkets, and Alleppey turmeric (more on their uses below). To store, keep in a cool dry place, and you can expect turmeric to keep for 18 months or even two or three years with little deterioration. Oh, and if you find yourself with turmeric stains on your hands, just rub them with some oil or salt. If it gets on your clothes, a good stain remover will do the trick, recommends Ragini.
Lesson 2: Curcumin and the health benefits of turmeric
Turmeric contains an active compound called curcumin, which is the source of its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Because it can limit inflammation, some researchers believe that curcumin can reduce the risk of arthritis, Alzheimer’s and heart disease.
But if you’re thinking of adding liberal doses of turmeric to your cooking for greater health benefits, unfortunately it doesn’t work like that.
Human trials on curcumin have been inconclusive and use curcumin supplementation in very large doses of 1 to 12 grams per day.
“Although curcumin is showing some encouraging effects in reducing markers of inflammation in humans; the majority of the pharmacological effects of curcumin are in lab studies or animal experiments;” writes Gunveer Kaur, lecturer in Nutritional Sciences at Deakin University, in The Conversation.
Plus, there’s taste to consider.
“Too much powdered turmeric can make your food bitter, so you have to be careful how much you use. It’s not a case of, ‘It’s so healthy, let’s just put in a bucket load’,” says Ragini.
She recommends using the right amount that a recipe calls for; which may not be more than a teaspoon at the most for five people.
Lesson 3: How to cook and eat different types of turmeric
Madras turmeric (dried and ground)
Madras turmeric is a pale yellow turmeric. It’s best used when you want a very bright yellow colour rather than a strong flavour; for example, when making pickles; says Ian Hemphill who owns a spice company on the Central Coast of New South Wales.
“It’s also good for adding colour to make yellow rice when you haven’t been to the bank and can’t afford to buy enough saffron,” says Ian.
“It’s a very gentle flavour that’s good to use with delicate seafood.”
Ragini recommends sprinkling some salt and turmeric on seafood; which will not only make the seafood a little firmer, but give the seafood more texture.
Alleppey turmeric (dried and ground)
Alleppey turmeric is the best turmeric to use in curries and tagines because of its rich and more earthy taste and stronger flavour, says Ian. Its name comes from the port of Alleppey in South India where the turmeric was originally traded, but today it doesn’t necessarily mean the turmeric comes from there.
Alleppey turmeric is a much darker yellow. It’s used in the Moroccan spice mix ras el hanout, and found in most South Indian cooking. Turmeric pairs well with ginger and also goes well with seafood, to help mask that overly fishy, ammonia taste, he says.
“In Indian cuisine, we would use turmeric fresh in salad-y things like a fresh chutney; or just add it to a vegetable or lentil preparation,” says Ragini. She recommends slicing the turmeric very finely and adding it to a little bit of heated oil with cumin seeds or fenugreek seeds. “In Indian cuisine, we would use turmeric fresh in salad-y things like a fresh chutney; or just add it to a vegetable or lentil preparation,” says Ragini. She recommends slicing the turmeric very finely and adding it to a little bit of heated oil with cumin seeds or fenugreek seeds.
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