It may not share cinnamon’s universal applicability to consumables, but turmeric is another spice with some powerful culinary and medicinal qualities that deserves our attention. Turmeric, known officially as Curcuma longa and historically as Indian saffron, is a rhizome of the ginger family. Its horizontal root system is dug up, baked, and ground into a fine orange powder, which then goes into any number of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Southeast Asian dishes. Pretty much every curry you come across anywhere, for example, includes a generous portion of turmeric. Common yellow mustard also includes turmeric, mostly as a food colorant.
Turmeric imparts a unique flavor: slightly bitter and a bit spicy, with a mustard-like scent. Upon tasting a dab of turmeric powder by itself for the first time, one is reminded of curries and other Asian stews. It’s a bit of an “Aha!” moment, in fact; you’re finally direct witness to the identity of that secretive flavor lurking within the explosiveness of the common Asian curry after all those years of take out and home cooking with anonymous curry powder mixes. Turmeric itself is actually fairly mild and unassuming, so using it as a solitary spice won’t turn every dish into a curry bonanza – in case you were worried.
Here are a few ways to experiment with the stuff in the kitchen:
- Turmeric pairs well with fish, often accompanied by little else than salt, pepper, and some lemon juice.
- For roasted chicken, I’ll sometimes rub the dry, raw bird with a turmeric-butter mixture before it enters the oven.
- You can turn that same turmeric butter into turmeric ghee – in Ayurvedic tradition, turmeric and ghee have a potent synergistic effect. Just mix softened butter with turmeric a couple hours before clarifying it.
- Add a few teaspoons to your chili for a curious subtlety that’ll make tasters scratch their chins and wonder aloud.
- The next time you roast a winter squash, sprinkle the finished flesh with turmeric, cinnamon, and butter.
- Simmer a teaspoon of turmeric and a teaspoon of cardamom in a cup of coconut milk for ten minutes. Remove, strain, and add a dash of cinnamon for a hearty, healthy drink.
- Roast fresh cauliflower dusted with turmeric, cumin, salt, and pepper and tossed in your cooking fat of choice.
- Try this Moroccan Chicken Casserole.
Years ago, I did a short piece of the anti-diabetic, anti-inflammatory effect of turmeric. Turmeric was shown to improve insulin sensitivity and blood glucose levels in rodent models. Mice given the supplement were less likely to develop type 2 diabetes, and they enjoyed greater body fat losses. Good, promising stuff all around. Plus, there’s plenty more:
- Curcumin supplementation has shown promise in treating and preventing Alzheimer’s disease: an overview.
- Sustained low doses of curcumin were actually more effective in reducing beta-amyloid plaques than higher doses.
- AD incidence is lower in regions with high levels of turmeric usage, like in India (compared to the United States) and in East Asia (compared to Europe).
- The anti-cancer effects of curcumin: an overview.
- Curcumin induces breast cancer cell apopstosis.
- Unlike many other anticancer agents that suppress the host’s immune system, curcumin is actually immunorestorative.
- Disrupted cell growth is a large factor in cancer development, and curcumin has a regulatory effect on cell function.
- Large and small bowel cancer rates are relatively low in India, especially among rural folks (eating a more traditional diet, one assumes).
- Turmeric extract high in curcumin was able to halt the progression of rheumatoid arthritis in animal model; the higher the curcumin content, the greater the effect.
- Curcumin inhibits the type of inflammation associated with arthritis.
- Topical curcumin speeds up the healing of wounds.
- Curcumin can reduce muscle soreness and the resultant performance loss after exercise.
Most of the research on turmeric has revolved around curcumin, an active, antioxidant component of the spice. By weight, curcumin content of turmeric powder goes no higher than 3.14% – not a terribly large amount, considering the therapeutic curcumin dosages being studied. Doses of between 2-6g are typically used in curcumin research, and it’s basically impossible to eat enough turmeric to ingest that amount of curcumin. Say you wanted a daily intake of 3g of curcumin, obtained through turmeric powder. Assuming you go the strongest stuff, you’d have to take about 3 ounces (conversion reminder: 16 ounces is 1 pound is 454 grams) of turmeric powder on a daily basis. That’s a lot of spice powder. I don’t care how much you love Indian food – it’s not going to be easy. Luckily, curcumin is non-toxic, and doses of up to 12g daily have been safely used. Note, though, that curcumin is a potential anticoagulant, so anyone taking prescription anticoagulants should check with their physician before supplementing.
Despite the focus on extracted curcumin, the epidemiology of cancer in India and other turmeric-using countries suggest that low, regular doses are beneficial, especially in cancer prevention. I love the taste, myself, so I’ll continue to use it regardless. I think you should, too.
Got any great turmeric recipes? Any success stories after using it as a health supplement? Let us know in the comments!