Turmeric was only discovered in the last decade or so by the Western world, and it has been hailed as a “superfood” since then. Turmeric, on the other hand, has been a staple ingredient in India for centuries.
I was in disbelief the first time I saw the drink, which I discovered in a chic London coffeeshop a few years ago. Turmeric latte, described as “golden milk” (almond or coconut, of course) with a hint of cinnamon and black pepper, sweetened with agave syrup, and… I stopped reading at that point. Partly because I noticed the rather startling price. And partly because I could almost hear thousands of Indian grandmothers laughing with delight.
I was transported back to my childhood, to memories of my mother trying to persuade me to drink a glass of warm milk mixed with a pinch of turmeric powder and sweetened with refined white sugar – no nut milk or natural sweeteners here. I can recall the vile residual mouthfeel – it wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned to describe the taste of turmeric in words like “pungent” and “peppery” – of turmeric milk, or haldi doodh as Hindi speakers in India know it, and palile manjal as my mother called it in Tamil. She was most likely attempting to soothe my sore throat or cool my feverish body with what many Indians still regard as a liquid panacea.
In India, turmeric is much more than an unassuming kitchen spice
Only in the last decade or so has the West discovered turmeric, and it has wasted no time in promoting it as a “superfood,” adding fresh turmeric root to tea and coffee, tall cold shakes, and tiny potent shots.
Since that initial encounter in London, I’ve discovered turmeric-infused beverages in (mostly hipster) cafes and coffee shops from San Francisco to Melbourne. In India, however, turmeric has long been a staple kitchen ingredient, used both in its original rhizome or root form and, more commonly now, in powdered form. My masala dabba (box containing seasoning and tempering ingredients) has always included turmeric powder alongside mustard seeds, fresh cumin, and chili powder, just as my mother’s and her mother before her did. Turmeric is primarily used as a coloring agent in traditional Indian cooking, particularly curries and gravies. Fresh and tender turmeric root is also used to make haldi ka achar (turmeric pickle), which is tempered with heated oil on top, and the leaves are used as steaming “envelopes” for foods in a few communities. Marryam Reshi, food writer and author of The Flavour of Spice, told me, “I used to grow turmeric in my Goa home so that I could make a local sweet called patholyo” (also patoleo or patholi). Coarsely ground rice is combined with black jaggery and steamed between two turmeric leaves, giving it a distinct floral flavor.â
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I spoke with Thomas Zacharias, executive chef at Mumbai’s popular restaurant The Bombay Canteen, who prides himself on using only fresh and local ingredients. Turmeric was described as a “background ingredient with minimal flavor or taste” by Zacharias. “I think most people in India use it out of habit, rather than thinking about what value it adds to a dish,” he added. Zacharias prefers to use fresh turmeric as a star ingredient in his cooking whenever possible, such as in his version of the Kerala fish curry meen moilee.
Turmeric, which is related to ginger, is grown in several Indian states. According to the Financial Express, the country accounts for more than 75% of global production. India is also the largest turmeric exporter and consumer. The warm and humid southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu are particularly well-known for their mass cultivation and high crop quality. Planting takes place between May and August, depending on the region, and the crop is harvested for a few months beginning in January.
It is not surprising, then, that fresh turmeric leaves and roots are tied to the mouth of the ceremonial pot in which milk is boiled, indicating abundance, during the Tamil harvest festival of Pongal in mid-January. Turmeric is much more than a common kitchen spice in India, occupying a significant cultural role.
Turmeric is used as a fertility and prosperity symbol in many Hindu communities, such as weddings. In the pre-wedding haldi ceremony, for example, family elders apply turmeric paste to the bride and groom’s faces in a blessing-meets-beauty ritual. The taali or mangalsutra (a thread tied around the bride’s neck to formalize the marriage) is typically a thick woven thread dipped in turmeric. Even today, clothes worn on auspicious occasions (including weddings) contain a trace of turmeric powder. In addition, Indian women have always included a pinch of turmeric in their homemade face masks, believing that it leaves the skin clear and glowing.
While most common spices were brought into the country by explorers and invaders (for example, chili from South America and cumin from the Eastern Mediterranean region), turmeric is indigenous to India, according to Reshi. “It is our spice, as no other spice is,” she said, “and the faith we have in its healing properties can only come from millennia of familiarity.”
When I checked into a reputable Ayurveda hospital in Kerala 10 years ago for a chronic pain condition, I was immediately started on a treatment of manjakizhi, or turmeric poultice, along with other massages and medicines. As the senior physician explained at the time, Ayurveda states that turmeric aids in the reduction of inflammation and thus pain.
Many Indians use turmeric as a home remedy, from applying a turmeric paste to sprained ankles to sniffing a smoked rhizome clump to ward off a cold, and it has been used in the traditional medical system of Ayurveda for centuries.