With any luck, we’re approaching the tail end of a very cold winter in North America, but until we’ve kicked the season to the dirty-snow-covered curb, we still want warming foods to shake off the chill. Anecdotal life experience seems to suggest that those seasonal transitions are when germs crop up again and start wreaking havoc on our bodies, viruses and allergies. We may have a temporary solution to your problem, and a long-term boost for your health, should you be into the whole food-as-medicine thang. It’s called turmeric. It lends warmth and subtle spice to your curries, soups and stews, and high-octane antioxidant power to smoothies, juices, and a remedy you may have seen online called fire cider.
Origins: This perennial herbaceous plant is a tuber from the ginger family and grows wild in south and southeast India. It needs warm temperatures and lots of rain in order to thrive; for most of us, it’s not necessarily an easy add to the garden plot.
Why/how did we start eating it: Initially, turmeric was used for dyes before it was used for food, spice or other medicinal purposes. In India, it’s been employed for 4,000 years in traditional Ayurvedic medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for stomach and liver problems. In the kitchen, it’s commonly thought of as a spice.
How it’s used: The uses for turmeric are many and varied. Ground turmeric, which comes from the rhizome, is the most widely available, used in curries, soups and stews. With its yellow-orange hue, it lends color and flavor as a primary ingredient in curry powders. The root is also available and should be peeled to reveal its pumpkin color, then grated or minced, before cooking with it. Less traditional incorporations: I cut off a nub about an inch long, skin and all, and chuck it into my morning nutritional powerhouse smoothie in the Vitamix, in addition to using it in cooking.
Neka Pasquale, an herbalist, acupuncturist and certified Chinese nutritionist, “In Traditional Chinese Medicine, turmeric is used to stimulate circulation, promote menses, relieve pain and swelling due to trauma and relieve epigastric pain,” she says. It is fat soluble; she recommends combining it with coconut oil, avocado, soups with fats, smoothies with nut milk and ghee (clarified butter.) But, she says, it’s not 100 percent essential, because TCM puts turmeric to work without fat, in combo with other effective herbs, with great results. She employs it in a few of her company’s juices and in a tincture.
It’s also possible to use it topically. Pasquale suggests combining the powder, citrus juice and salt and applying directly to sprains or areas of inflammation. Monica Aggarwal, M.D., director of echocardiography at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, touts turmeric’s anti-bacterial and anti-viral benefits, too. “In India, back in the day, if someone cut their skin, they’d put ground turmeric on it,” she says.
You can find ground turmeric with the spices in the supermarket or at specialty grocers, especially Indian ones. My local Wegmans sells the root right alongside other specialty items from Melissa’s, such as yucca and sugar cane and so forth. Ground turmeric is yellowy-orange and smells bitter and pungent. The raw, root form offers more aromatic nuances; it resembles ginger and smells earthy, slightly peppery. Either way, it’s a warming spice.
The compound that makes turmeric’s magic is curcumin, which you may have seen in capsule form in health food stores, but Dr. Aggarwal, who is the rare physician who believes in “diet over drugs” whenever possible, recommends her patients just start adding it their diets. “There’s nothing to lose,” she says. While there have been some small-scale studies on turmeric’s benefits—she mentions one in conjunction with rheutmatoid arthritis, which she has—it’s not likely we’ll see extensive studies. She puts it bluntly: “It’s not financially lucrative to do studies on turmeric.” Besides, we have those thousands of years of Ayurveda and TCM as evidence, she says.
Buyer beware: Like beets and other intensely colored, antioxidant-laden foods, turmeric will temporarily stain your hands, knives and cutting board and other surfaces—depending on how porous they are. Knives and hands clean up pretty easily, but I have a tea ball and a small wooden cutting board that are permanently stained. It’s wise to wash anything that comes into contact with turmeric ASAP after using it. You can store the root in the fridge or at room temperature.