Google “turmeric” and you’d be excused for thinking you’d discovered the meaning of life, the universe and everything. “The most powerful herb on the planet at fighting and potentially reversing disease” says one website. “May have health benefits for nearly every system in the body” declares another. From stopping flatulence to Alzheimer’s prevention, from keeping ageing, cancer and heart disease at bay to flooding your body with powerful antioxidants, there’s not much, it would seem, that turmeric can’t do. Indeed, it has been used in traditional medicine (most notably, Indian Siddha and Ayurvedic) for centuries. It contains a group of powerful compounds called curcuminoids, which are at the heart of all the health claims - many of these are gaining traction even in conventional medical circles.
So what is turmeric exactly? Glad you asked. It’s a rhizome from the ginger family that grows wild in the steamy jungles of South and South-East Asia. It’s used either fresh or dried and usually in savoury dishes as its distinctly warm, slightly bitter and medicinal flavour is well suited to curries, braises, soups, salads, satays and the like. But it’s not unknown in sweet scenarios either, such as in sfouf, for example, a Lebanese cake flavoured with turmeric. And, with its wild popularity amongst the wellness brigade, the spice now finds its way into every healthy, sweet thing imaginable - from lattes to brownies to smoothies to muffins to cookie bars. There are lots of ways to get a turmeric fix!
It contains a group of powerful compounds called curcuminoids, which are at the heart of all the health claims.
In its fresh state, turmeric looks a bit like a miniature version of ginger, but with darker, brown-orange skin and vibrant orange flesh. You can find fresh turmeric at Asian greengrocers and good general greengrocers, too. It keeps for about a week in the refrigerator, stored in an airtight plastic bag. To prepare it, simply peel the thin skin using a potato peeler and either chop, slice or finely grate the flesh. While fresh turmeric has a much brighter flavour, dried turmeric is easier to source and a good deal more convenient to store; substitute 1 teaspoon of dried turmeric for every tablespoon of fresh, in a recipe.
Dried turmeric can be purchased either in ground form or as whole dried fingers (which you grate to use); the latter type is less common but you will find them in a good Indian food store. The drying process comes at the expense of some of the spice’s essential oils and pungency and quality among brands varies. As with any dried spice, purchase from a reputable source with a high turnover – it’s work seeking out a specialist grocer. Dried turmeric can vary in colour from yellow to orange-yellow but note that the aroma (which should be strong, warm and a little pungent) is a better indicator of quality than colour.
These pickled eggs are great alongside cured meats, in a sandwich or added to a salad for substance.
2. Nonya curry paste
In a pan, dry-roast 1 tbsp belacan wrapped in foil in a frying pan over medium-low heat. Soak 10 dried chillies in boiling water for 30 minutes, then drain. Combine chillies in a food processor with the toasted belacan,1 tbsp ground coriander, 1½ tsp each ground fenugreek and cumin, 4 candlenuts, 4 garlic cloves, 4 large red Asian shallots, 1 tbsp chopped fresh turmeric and 2 tbsp chopped lemongrass stems, and process until smooth. To use for a chicken curry, first fry the paste and use coconut milk as the curry liquid.
The heady mix of warming spices (turmeric, cardamom, black pepper, ginger and clove) is comfort in a glass and and a traditional home remedy for a cold or sore throat.
While Afghan food bears some Indian influence, as seen, for example in the use of spices like cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, turmeric and cumin, it doesn’t share chilli-heat with the subcontinent. So this is a mild dish, made rich by the liberal use of yoghurt.
5. Turmeric and honey roasted carrots
Peel 8 medium carrots and cut lengthways into eighths. Place in a single layer in a baking dish and scatter with 1½ tsp cumin seeds, 2 tsp ground turmeric and 1 tsp chilli flakes. Drizzle with 100 ml olive oil and ¼ cup honey. Roast in a preheated 180˚C oven for 35 minutes or until golden and tender, adding a little water, if the juices threaten to burn. Season to taste with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.
6. Lemongrass-turmeric syrup
Combine 180 g caster sugar, 125 ml (½ cup) each lemon or lime juice and water, 2 bruised lemongrass stems and 2½ tbsp finely grated fresh turmeric in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer and cook over low heat for 5 minutes or so to allow flavours to develop. Cool, then serve drizzled over fruit salad made using peeled, seeded and diced rockmelon, banana, pawpaw and mango.
This is the simplest of simple soups. Serve it with some Arabic, or other flatbread (like this Iranian taftan), some olives, chunks of white cheese, and cucumber and tomato wedges to the side for an easy, quick spread.
Acar, pronounced “ah-char”, is a spicy, sweet, sour vegetable pickle that Malaysians love to eat as a condiment or a side dish. You can use whatever vegetables you have; firm crisp ones tend to work best. Serve acar with grilled or barbecued meat, fish or poultry.
9. Turmeric-Coconut sticky rice
Soak 450 g and 1 tsp ground turmeric overnight in cold water to cover. Drain well then place in a cloth-lined steamer with 3 bruised pandas leaves. Steam for 20 minutes, discard leaves and transfer rice to a bowl. Work in 125 ml coconut milk and salt to taste then serve.
This is a great dairy-free ice cream based on coconut milk but it will work equally well using 350 ml each of milk and pouring cream instead if you prefer. I’ve sprinkled salt over the top to serve - coconut milk really goes up a few notches in the flavour stakes when salt is used, but you can omit if you like.
Photography, styling and food preparation by china squirrel.
When she doesn’t have her head in the pantry cupboard, Leanne Kitchen finds time to photograph food and write cookbooks. You can view her work on her website.
Oh, how I miss the Conscious Cafe in Byron Bay. I would eat at least three or four of their turmeric crêpes with a poached egg every week, and when they closed down I literally thought I had lost the will to go on… I then gave myself a metaphorical slap across the face and started making them myself.
Meaning turmeric rice, nasi kunyit is often served as a side dish in a banquet. As it looks like a pile of gold it is usually served at special events to signify good fortune, wealth and dignity.
"You can make this cake (sfouf) either square or round and I love having this for breakfast with a cup of tea or as a sweet treat in the afternoon with cup of coffee," says Jackie Chahine of Profiterole Patisserie. You will need a 20 cm cake pan for this recipe.
Luke Nguyen's recipe for pan-fried ling packs a flavour punch with ground turmeric, fresh dill, curry powder and more, served on a bed of vermicelli noodles. This is simple Vietnamese cooking at its tasty best. Serve as part of a shared meal.