Turmeric (Curcuma Domestica) Great Taste, Good Health!

Returning from China in 1280, Marco Polo wrote in his notes, "There is also a vegetable that has all the properties of true saffron, as well as the smell and the color, and yet it is not really saffron." He was writing about turmeric, which is still used as an inexpensive substitute for saffron and sometimes called "Indian saffron," although more likely because of its use in curry than because of Marco Polo.

The name turmeric is believed to originate with the Latin, terra merita, meaning "merit of the earth". The spice is highly regarded in India where it is identified with fertility. During wedding ceremonies, a sacred thread dipped in turmeric paste is tied around the bride's neck by the bridegroom. In Malaysia, turmeric paste is spread on the abdomen of a new mother and the umbilical cord of the baby, both as an antiseptic and to ward off evil spirits.

The use of turmeric as a coloring agent for food and fabric dates back to before 600 BC. Turmeric is still used in pickles and relishes and to flavor and color prepared mustard. The rhizome, or root, is carefully unearthed, broken into sections and then boiled or steamed before being dried. The result is a bright yellow powder with a mild, slightly bitter, peppery flavor and aroma. Oil of turmeric contains mint flavored borneol, spicy eucalyptol - with a camphor-like smell - and zingerone, the spicy sweet flavoring in ginger. Turmeric is part of the ginger family.

Turmeric, botanically known as curcuma domestica, is a tender perennial, native to India and China so I doubt if it can be grown successfully is our climate even as an annual. However, it makes a handsome potted plant for a sunny window.

In Hawaii, where turmeric is known as Olena, the spice is mixed with salt water and, in a magical cleansing ceremony, it is sprinkled in the area to be purified, sometimes with a ti leaf.

Medicinally, turmeric has received considerable and favorable publicity lately. In traditional Indian ayurvedic medicine, the herb is considered a natural antibiotic while strengthening digestion and improving intestinal flora. In the May/June, 1996 issue of VRP's (Vitamin Research Products, Inc.) Nutritional News, turmeric was listed as having anti-inflammatory action equal to and sometimes better than cortisone and phenylbutazone treatment. Nutritional News also reports studies indicating that turmeric's antioxidant value makes it five times more effective as a free radical scavenger than vitamin E and that it has powerful anti-cancer and anti-cholesterol properties. No wonder I love curry! Some herbalists recommend using turmeric's antibacterial constituent (curmunin) topically to fight certain skin conditions such as psoriasis and athlete's foot.

Turmeric has also been shown to inhibit blood clotting. This could pose a problem for people with clotting disorders and they, along with anybody using anticoagulant medication, should avoid the spice. Turmeric's long-standing benefit as a treatment for digestive and liver problems has largely been confirmed by scientific study, but if a little is good, a lot is not necessarily better. Large amounts of turmeric can cause stomach upset.

Turmeric is frequently used as an integral or additional ingredient in curry dishes, but here are a couple of delicious meals using the spice in non-curry applications:

Vegetarian Shepherd's Pie

In the order listed, layer the following in an adequately sized, oiled baking dish:

· ¼ head of shredded green cabbage

· ½ tsp. of caraway seeds

· ½ cup of brown rice cooked with one teaspoon of turmeric

· Salt to taste

· ½ cup of mixed vegetables - whatever you have handy in the fridge, but including half an onion already sautéed in butter (even mixed frozen vegetables are acceptable)

· 3 medium to large potatoes, cooked and mashed with a little butter, milk or cream, salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Sprinkle the top with a little more turmeric and bake for 30-40 minutes in a preheated oven at 325 degrees. Allow to cool slightly before serving.

Turmeric also complements fish delightfully. If cod isn't available, red snapper or an alternative of your choice is acceptable in the following recipe. I have even used tuna steaks.

Asian Cod

· 4 tablespoons fresh cilantro

· 2 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced

· 2 cloves of garlic, minced

· 1 small hot red or jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped

· 2 tablespoons lime juice

· 1 tablespoon olive oil

· 1/8 of a tsp. of turmeric

· ¼ of a tsp. of sea salt

· 4 thick ling cod steaks

Place the first eight ingredients in a blender or food processor and blend thoroughly. If the consistency is too thick, add a little water or white wine. Place the cod steaks in a baking dish and cover with the blended ingredients. Bake covered at 350F degrees for 25-30 minutes or until the fish flakes easily indicating doneness. Serve with rice and a vegetable of your choice. Serves four.

Here's a recipe for a classic chicken curry using turmeric:

Mango Chicken Curry

· 6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut up into bite-sized pieces

· 1 bunch of cilantro, chopped

· 1 Tbsp. of ginger, minced

· 10 cloves of garlic, minced

· 1 tsp. of cayenne or red chili powder (or more to taste)

· 2 cans of tomatoes

· 2 fresh jalapeno chilies

· 1 Tbsp. of olive oil

· ½ cup of white wine

· 1 fresh, ripe mango, peeled and diced

· 1 medium onion, diced

· 1 cup of yogurt

· 1½ tsp. of salt

· 1 tsp. of ground turmeric

· 1 tsp. of garam masala (optional - see cinnamon recipe)

Mix together the ginger, garlic, wine, salt and chili powder and marinate the chicken pieces in this for at least 30 minutes. Blend together one can of the tomatoes and the chilies. Then add the other can of tomatoes and the cilantro, blending slightly to retain chunkiness of the tomatoes. Sauté the onion in the olive oil in a large, lidded frying pan until translucent. Then add the chicken and marinade and cook for several minutes before adding the tomato mix, turmeric, salt, garam masala and yogurt. Continue to cook and stir for about five minutes then cover and simmer for about an hour so that the chicken is very tender and the flavors are well blended. Just before serving add the diced mango. Serves four.

Bruce Burnett, has won four Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) Gold awards for travel journalism. Read more of Bruce Burnett's writing on his websites:

1. [http://www.globalramble.com/]

2. [http://www.bruceburnett.ca/]

3. http://www.herbalcuisine.com/

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