Turmeric: The golden king of the spice world

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 12 minutes

There’s a lot more to turmeric than curries and lattes.

Long renowned for its colour, flavour, and extensive list of health benefits, the ‘golden spice’ has gained even more notoriety in recent years. Bloggers extol the benefits of turmeric lattes, and health stores are lined with turmeric supplements.

Clinical trials have shown that this humble yellow root is indeed something of a miracle. But the recent surge of interest is just another jewel in turmeric’s 4000-year-old crown.

The history of turmeric

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 12 minutes

There’s a lot more to turmeric than curries and lattes.

Long renowned for its colour, flavour, and extensive list of health benefits, the ‘golden spice’ has gained even more notoriety in recent years. Bloggers extol the benefits of turmeric lattes, and health stores are lined with turmeric supplements.

Clinical trials have shown that this humble yellow root is indeed something of a miracle. But the recent surge of interest is just another jewel in turmeric’s 4000-year-old crown.

The history of turmeric

Known as ‘Indian saffron’, turmeric has a lengthy history of use in cooking, medicine, and religious ceremonies. Records of turmeric’s use date back to 2500BC, with pots found containing traces of turmeric residue. But according to Ayurvedic medicinal texts, the spice has been used in Vedic culture in India as long ago as 500BC. The ancient text Susruta’s Ayurvedic Compendium, written as early as 250BC, recommends an ointment containing turmeric to treat food poisoning.

Turmeric made its way across the world slowly, reaching China by around 700AD, East Africa by 800AD, and West Africa by 1200AD. In 1280, the explorer Marco Polo encountered it on his travels, describing it as “a vegetable with the properties of saffron, yet it is not really saffron.” The taste is described as bitter, slightly acrid, and yet somewhat sweet.

Today, turmeric is grown and used in many different countries and cultures. The word turmeric is derived from the Latin word terra merita, meaning meritorious earth; a reference to its colour.

Turmeric has over 50 different names in Sanskrit, all of which are related to its texture, appearance, and religious significance. In North India, it is known as ‘haldi’, derived from the Sanskrit word for ‘dear to hari, Lord Krishna’. Other Sanskrit names include hemaragi (exhibits golden colour), patwaluka (perfumed powder), jayanti (one that wins over diseases), and mehagni (killer of fat).

In most other languages, turmeric simply translates to ‘yellow root’.

Botanical background

Turmeric belongs to the Curcuma longa group, which is part of the ginger family (Zingiberaceae). Native to tropical South Asia, over 130 species of Curcuma grow around the world. The turmeric plant grows best in hot, wet countries, and reaches a height of around one metre.

Most of the world’s turmeric crop is produced in India, which is also where 80% of turmeric is consumed. The South Indian city of Erode – also known as ‘Yellow City’ – is the largest producer of turmeric and is its most important trading centre.

Indian turmeric is known to harbour the highest content of turmeric’s prize compound: the medicinal bioactive curcumin.

Processing turmeric is complex. The tuberous rhizome – which grows underground – must be boiled or steamed in order to remove its odour and produce a uniform colour. Traditionally, preparing turmeric involved placing the rhizomes in earthen pots filled with water and castor oil. The pots were then covered with leaves and a layer of cow dung, which were believed to enhance the colour. Once boiled, the rhizomes would be spread out in the sun and left to dry for 10 to 20 days. The dried turmeric would then be polished and exported. This traditional method continues to be practised by some producers in Erode but has otherwise been discouraged due to hygiene reasons. Today, the rhizomes are boiled in vats but still dried in the sun before being ground to a yellow powder.

A medicinal miracle

Few plants have such a broad range of uses. Thousands of years before scientific trials would prove its benefits, turmeric was being used all over the world for its powerful healing properties.

In Ayurvedic practises, turmeric is used to balance the three constitutions: vata, pitta, and kapha (which can be interpreted as air, fire, and earth). It is known to benefit the rasa and rakta dhatus (blood and plasma of the circulatory system). It also lights the ‘digestive fire’ (agni) and helps to reduce toxins (kapha and ama) in the body.

In India, turmeric continues to be the go-to solution for nearly every health problem. It is recommended for boosting energy, relieving gas, improving digestion, regulating the menstrual cycle, dissolving gallstones, treating arthritis, and ridding the body of worms. Turmeric is also believed to purify the blood and alleviate a variety of skin conditions.

Many Indian recipes add turmeric as a means of improving digestion and reducing the gas and bloating that may come with eating legumes. As a cholagogue, turmeric has been shown to stimulate bile production in the liver and promote fat digestion. It is especially popular as a remedy for IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) and other gut disorders. A formula made with turmeric mixed with milk or water is often used to treat digestive issues, as well as colds and sore throats.

It’s included in treatments for liver disorders, anorexia, rheumatism, and diabetic wounds. Even respiratory conditions are believed to benefit from turmeric’s magic: when burned, the fumes are used to help congestion caused by asthma, allergies, bronchitis, coughs, colds, and sinusitis.

In some parts of India, turmeric paste is believed to help the skin glow. Today, several multinational companies make skincare that includes turmeric.

Throughout Southeast Asia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, turmeric is readily prescribed as a natural antiseptic for cuts, burns, and bruises.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) also includes turmeric in its treatments for conditions associated with abdominal pain and discomfort. Turmeric is given as a bitter and a carminative, helping to stimulate appetite and improve digestive function.

A culinary king

Turmeric is almost always used in its dried form, although fresh turmeric root can be found in some vegetable stores.

In Indian dishes, turmeric powder is one of the most essential ingredients. It provides the exotic, peppery taste and deep colour that India’s traditional curries are famous for.

But while India may be the largest consumer of turmeric, the spice has long been prized in other parts of the world. In fact, it’s estimated that each person in Asia consumes around 200-1000 mg of turmeric a day, or 160-440grams a year. Consumption is much higher in rural areas, averaging around 600mg a day.

Sweet and savoury dishes throughout South Asia, the Middle East and as far as Ethiopia call for turmeric’s distinctive flavour and colour. It is also used as a colouring agent in cheese, butter, and many manufactured food products.

The West discovered turmeric during the British colonisation of India, and also through trading via the British East India Trading Company. Indian merchants began creating mixtures of powdered spices and selling them to the British to take back to England. The spice makers also lauded turmeric as a therapeutic aid for a huge range of health issues.

The word ‘curry’ actually comes from the Tamil word ‘kari’, meaning sauce. The British used the term to describe a dish consisting of meat and/or vegetables cooked with a sauce that generally included turmeric. Kari was first mentioned in a Portuguese cookbook from around the mid-1600s. The first known English recipe including turmeric was published in The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy in 1747, in which it was used to make “India Pickle”. A 1758 publication of the cookbook included the first recipe for a curry dish that included turmeric.

Today, turmeric continues to feature as a major component of curries in many different cuisines. In Thailand, turmeric is revered for its fragrant, slightly bitter overtones that help to balance out the salty fish sauce used in many Thai dishes, along with the rich sweetness of coconut milk. It may also be used to add spiciness to Thai curries such as massaman. Turmeric is even a favourite in the more mild Japanese curry.

Cultural reverence

Hinduism reveres turmeric as auspicious and sacred. It symbolises purity, fertility and prosperity, and is often used in traditional rites and rituals. The powder is used alongside sandalwood powder and poured onto deities in temples.

In traditional Hindu marriage ceremonies, turmeric paste is used to dye the ‘mangala sutra’, a string that is tied around the bride’s neck by her groom. Like a wedding ring, the mangala sutra is a symbol of goodwill and love; that the woman has become a wife.

In India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, turmeric paste is applied to the skin of the bride and groom before the marriage ceremony. Dried turmeric rhizomes may also be wrapped in betel leaves and given to women to enhance fertility and luck. After marriage, Hindu women will apply a mixture of turmeric and limestone known as ‘kumkum’ on their forehead and along their hair parting to indicate their marital status. Turmeric may also be placed on the forehead of new-born babies and sprinkled on the saris of brides for good luck.

In parts of south India and some Pacific Islands, a piece of turmeric rhizome may be worn as an amulet to ward off evil spirits.

Grinding turmeric
Photo: Vivek, Pexels

Turmeric today

The Ayurvedic practitioners were right: turmeric is just as good as they believed it to be. Modern science has since revealed turmeric harbours an active ingredient called curcumin, which is responsible for its many medicinal benefits. Curcumin has the unique ability to suppress both acute and chronic inflammation, along with many other healing properties.

Over the past decade, numerous studies have shown that turmeric is effective in treating almost every ailment from joint pain and digestive disorders to skin conditions, liver dysfunction, urinary tract infections, conjunctivitis, and more. More recent research suggests it may be a promising treatment for chronic diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, liver disorders, and possibly even cancer.

Turmeric is now used in numerous alternative medical disciplines and continues to be the subject of many scientific trials. In fact, it’s gained more fame in medicinal applications than culinary.

That’s one powerful spice.

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