We hear more and more about it, both in cooking and as a supplement – but would you like to know more about it? We’re going to tell you all about it.
What is it turmeric?
It’s an orangey-yellow root (curcuma longa) with a strong smell, but when it’s dried and powdered it takes on a bright yellow colour and its aromas are brought out.
The plant needs high temperatures and plenty of rain to grow, making the rich, humid soils of India and south Asia the ideal place for it to grow and develop. However, today it is grown in different parts of the planet and harvested mainly in the winter months.
From east to west: A bit of turmeric’s history
Though it might seem like the latest fashionable discovery, turmeric has been used since ancient times. It is mentioned in the Atharvaveda (a Hindu sacred text) around 6000BC, where it was prescribed to treat jaundice and leprosy.
In itself, Ayurvedic medicine treated turmeric as a multi-purpose spice, recommending it for beauty treatments, cooking and as a remedy. Chinese medicine also made use of it, and in fact Buddhist monks used it as a dye for their traditional tunics.
Assyrian civilisation was already using it as a dye around 2600BC. Behind a great artistic movement that included sculpture, painting, pottery and architecture, this civilisation used it as a pigment and included it in their colour palette.
The quality of its pigments meant it was also used in food, for example to colour cheese and yoghurts. In other cases it was added to some foods to act as a preservative.
Despite its important role in the east, turmeric was not part of the western world until relatively recently. There is, however, a little evidence that points to its use and importance in Europe. For example, Marco Polo (1280) said he had found a plant that had “all the qualities of saffron, but in a root.”
More recently, in the mid-20th century, turmeric began to gain popularity in the western world. Today, numerous research studies and experiments have established its benefits.
Just as Ayurvedic medicine used it millennia ago, today western industry is studying it and using it in beauty products, medicines, the visual arts and food.
Its property of being a “digestive” spice is widely known; it aids digestion in cases of dyspepsia, wind, “bloated belly”, heartburn and other problems. It works even better in combination with other digestive spices such as aniseed, cinnamon, ginger and cumin.
How to use turmeric in the kitchen
Of course, turmeric is becoming known in our kitchens through popular Asian – especially Indian – dishes like curries (of which it is one of the main ingredients) and dhal (lentil stew).
But also, with the advent of “superfoods”, turmeric has become a useful ingredient in juices and shakes, as well as infusions. This is the case with the popular “golden milk” or “turmeric milk”, which combines ground turmeric with coconut oil and milk (either cow’s milk or a plant-based alternative) and optionally other ingredients like cinnamon, ginger or lemon peel.
In cooking you can use both the fresh root – highly aromatic but mild – and powder, with a very strong colour and flavour.
- Juices and shakes: in juice the best thing is a small piece of fresh root, and it goes very well with carrots and oranges; or with apple, lemon and fennel. In shakes you can use both the root and the powder, but be very careful with the amounts because the powder is very powerful.
- In sauces: you can use a little ground turmeric to colour a mayonnaise, a garlic and oil allioli or a vinaigrette.
- In stews and soups: first sauté finely-chopped onion and garlic and then add the turmeric. Then add vegetables or fish and next pour in stock or coconut milk (in the case of a classic curry).
- In “spreadables”: like cheese (whether made from milk or nuts) and butter. Simply mix the “mother” paste with a little ground turmeric.
- To season nuts, popcorn and the like, you can put them in a bowl with a little butter or olive oil and a pinch of salt, pepper and a little turmeric. Then you roast them until they are a nice golden colour, take them out and let them cool.
- To colour doughs for bread, biscuits, quiche or pasta, just add a little ground turmeric to the dough and mix well.
Properties attributed to turmeric
The active ingredients of turmeric are substances called curcuminoids, and are responsible for its powerful anti-inflammatory effect. These are like “fractions” of the curcumin: curcumin II, curcumin III and cyclocurcumin. They make up between 3 and 5% of the turmeric, though depending on where it comes from they can reach higher levels; the growing conditions and farming practices influence this. When you buy ground turmeric you are getting a product with a mixture of curcuminoids that can vary depending on how it is processed.
The value of curcuminoids is that they are substances that inhibit the synthesis of inflammatory prostaglandins, and are in fact compared with corticoesteroids, with the same anti-inflammatory effect in acute cases but without the toxic side effects of these drugs.
They have also been shown to have therapeutic potential for chronic oxidative or inflammatory illnesses (1) like metabolic syndrome, arthritis, anxiety and hyperlipidemia.
However, simply eating turmeric does not give these benefits because it has low bioavailability due to poor absorption, a rapid metabolism and rapid elimination, but if it is combined with other substances the situation changes. For example, piperine, the main active component of black pepper, increases the bioavailability of curcumin by 2000% (2). It is therefore prescribed in cases of inflammation and pain.
It can also be helpful in the sporting world, in cases of inflammation caused by exercise and muscle pain, improving recovery and performance (2)
The latest research also points to another synergy: curcumin combined with other polyphenols: resveratrol (from red grapes) and epicatechin gallate (from green tea) to form a compound called TriCurin that is a very powerful treatment for HPV (human papillomavirus) and tumours (3). It is even considered successful as a treatment for glioblastoma, a lethal brain tumour for which the current average survival period is 12 – 15 months (3) (4)
Also being studied is the combination of turmeric with saffron and vitamin E to treat Alzheimer’s, because of its capacity for synergy with powerful antioxidant agents to reduce neurodegeneration (5)
In any case, the rise of turmeric is unstoppable, both in the kitchen and in the medical world. Nature certainly provides us with some wonderful products to take advantage of and find balance and well-being.
- Curcumin, Inflammation, and Chronic Diseases: How Are They Linked?
- Curcumin: A Review of Its Effects on Human Health
- Liposomal TriCurin, A Synergistic Combination of Curcumin, Epicatechin Gallate and Resveratrol, Repolarizes Tumor-Associated Microglia/Macrophages, and Eliminates Glioblastoma (GBM) and GBM Stem Cells
- TriCurin, a novel formulation of curcumin, epicatechin gallate, and resveratrol, inhibits the tumorigenicity of human papillomavirus-positive head and neck squamous cell carcinoma
- Vitamin E, Turmeric and Saffron in Treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease