Spice merchant diary: turmeric

Update: 9/19/2013

It’s known as "saffron des Indes" in France, but those in the know would never substitute saffron for turmeric, unless simply using it as a dye. Colour is the only thing these two spices have in common. While saffron, the hand-picked stamens of a purple crocus, is the world’s most expensive spice, turmeric is one of the cheapest.

Turmeric is the rhizome, or underground stem, of a perennial native to south India and South-East Asia. It thrives in the moist tropics and sub-tropics and is cultivated in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, China, the West Indies, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Peru and Australia. In its fresh form, it looks like ginger, though it’s more of an orange hue underneath the rough brown skin. The rhizomes are boiled, peeled and sun-dried, and usually sold as a powder. Ground turmeric has a distinctive yellow colour, an earthy aroma and a mild, slightly bitter flavour with hints of ginger and citrus.

This ancient spice was used in South Asia as long as four millennia ago, probably first as a dye and later in food. It now features in the cuisines of Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and the West Indies, where it appears in masalas, curry powders and pastes. Turmeric is used to spice meat and vegetables and is a favourite in Moroccan dishes, such as tagines and the soup harira. It tints Indian desserts and sweets, while, in the West, is used as an additive to colour cheeses, margarines and some mustards. It also appears in some Vietnamese dishes.

Use turmeric in ...

curry powders and curries such as prawn madras, lamb Balti, tarka dhal, chicken korma or butter chicken, jalfrezi and Indonesian beef rendang. Add to vegetable or fish stews, sauces for fish, satays, Bombay potatoes and rice dishes. As turmeric has a mild taste, it’s unlikely to tip the flavour balance of a dish unless used with a heavy hand. For the same reason, it can be left out of a recipe if colour isn’t an issue. Stored in an airtight jar away from heat and sunlight, turmeric will retain its power to tint food indefinitely, though its flavour will diminish in a few months.

Turmeric goes with ...

fish, prawns, chicken, beef, lamb, rabbit, lentils, onion, garlic, eggplant, tomato, potatoes, rice, bread, ginger, orange, lemon, tamarind, cumin, chilli, coriander, leeks, dried fruit, eggs, yoghurt, butter.


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