If there is one quintessential Southeast Asian spice, a flavour that divides East and West and sets the beef and potatoes of Germany and Britain from the exotic aromas of Malaysia and India, it would be turmeric… aka the Golden Spice.
Pungent and powerful with mysterious health benefits, the root of the turmeric plant is an ancient, foundational ingredient used in dishes, traditional medicine and even dye from India to China.
Keeping a little turmeric on your spice rack can help you unlock the millennia-old flavours of a lentil cauliflower curry or chicken satay, or add a little Eastern flair to a Spanish omelette or Sunday roast.
Turmeric: As old as Asia
Possibly originating in India, Turmeric has been cultivated and used in food and medicine in Southeast Asia for 4000 years or more.
These days, turmeric root – usually ground into a fine, mustard-coloured powder – is used heavily in Middle Eastern, Indian, West African, Southeast Asian and southern Chinese cuisine. It has a distinctive, pungent, peppery flavour that supports savoury dishes.
Turmeric in medicine
In traditional Indian Ayurveda medicine, turmeric is thought to help with all sorts of maladies, including swelling, liver and respiratory disease, physical scrapes and cuts, and influenza. It’s also said to increase energy, boost metabolism and regulate menstrual cycles. Traditional medicine from other regions, especially China, prize turmeric for its healing properties.
For something a little more skin-deep, holistic beauticians swear by turmeric to clear acne, reduce wrinkles and strengthen the skin. Try it yourself with this DIY turmeric face mask.
Modern science suggests the secret of turmeric may lie in a compound called curcumin, which studies have tied to anti-inflammatory properties, heart health, cognitive functioning and antioxidant absorption. On the other hand, sceptics cite the relatively low amount of curcumin turmeric, and recent studies cast doubt on the reality of almost all of curcumin’s supposed health benefits.
Choose turmeric for taste, if not for health
Whether or not you are a turmeric believer, making turmeric a staple of your spice rack will open all sorts of aromatic and exotic possibilities for your kitchen. Here are some of our favourite traditional turmeric recipes to try:
- Thai yellow curry
- Traditional Cambodian chicken curry
- Indian cauliflower sabzi
- Malaysian chicken satay
- Maakouda (Moroccan potato beignet)
And try these Western-style dishes with a turmeric twist: