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Trendy Turmeric

By Audrey Stallsmith

curcuma longa

Okay. I confess: I want turmeric to be the saffron mentioned in the Bible. It’s such a good herb that it deserves to be in the Bible.

James Duke, "Ancient Herbs, Modern Uses"

On this New Year's Day, I am sipping ginger and turmeric tea to soothe a sore throat--and hoping it is not a strep throat! The tea actually tastes quite good, but that may be partially due to the honey and lemon juice included. And, yes, the concoction does seem to dull the pain.

That's only to be expected, however, as ginger and its cousin turmeric are both anti-inflammatories. And turmeric, if we believe the current hype, will also cure just about anything else that ails you!

Its health-giving properties are reportedly due to the compound curcumin that gives the spice its yellow color. This is reminiscent of anthocyanins, which "paint" blueberries and other fruits in rich hues, and are also responsible for most of the berries' health benefits. There must be something about color that promotes health in the body as well as the spirit!

Turmeric probably originated in India and the modern version, curcuma longa, is thought to be a hybrid between the wild curcuma aromatica and some other species. It grows about three feet tall and produces tubers with a brown skin and orange flesh. The "fingers" of those tubers are cooked, dried, and ground to produce the spice.

With a flavor compared to ginger mixed with pepper, turmeric is the most important ingredient of curry powder, which also generally includes coriander, cumin, and fenugreek. (Though the powder can incorporate a host of other substances as well: cloves, garlic, fennel, etc.) Turmeric also appears as the coloring agent in most mustards.

It was, in fact, long used as a dye before becoming so popular as a medicinal. So keep in mind that, although it may soothe your skin, it may hue that hide at the same time! In fact, Indonesians used turmeric to paint thier bodies for wedding rituals. When eaten, it can even color the saliva yellow. And that mustard shade is, as we all know, one of the more difficult stains to get out.

Turmeric has been used as a substitute for saffron, both in cooking and in coloring fabric, thus explaining Dr. Duke's reference to it at the head of this article. In fact curcuma may even derive from the Sanskrit kunkuma ("saffron"). Marco Polo described the plant as "a vegetable with the properties of saffron, yet it is not really saffron." The type mentioned in Scripture was probably the real thing, however, as crocus sativus is more likely than turmeric to have been grown in the Holy Land. But the latter holds the advantage of being much cheaper.

And of being much lauded these days as well! Many of turmeric's benefits reportedly derive from its ability to stop harmful proteins--such as those that grow in the brains of Alzheimer's patients or those that help cancer to spread. It is especially popular in Asia for treating stomach and liver ailments and for soothing skin problems.

It would take much too long to list all the other health benefits supposedly associated with turmeric, from lowering cholesterol to fighting viruses to improving the digestion. So let's just dub curcuma a cure-all, until we are informed differently!

It's always best to avoid overuse of any spice, however. My mother became somewhat allergic to cinnamon after taking it regularly in capsule form. So I try to imbibe such beneficials occasionally in foods and teas rather than attempting to turn them into an every-day sort of thing. Speaking of which, one of Mom's dishes that us kids most requested was rice curry.

Take a base of cooked white rice, add some sort of curried meat in gravy, then pile on a variety of toppings: chopped or shredded vegetables and fruits, nuts, coconut, even chocolate chips if you like. (This is where one of those Lazy Susans with the many little dishes comes in handy.)

Granted, our version of curry sounds like a real mess. It was probably somewhat of a pain to prepare too, because we only got it on special occasions. But that, of course, only made it the more savory to us!

Curcuma longa image is from Kohler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.