There is a tale told of a Myanmar traveler standing on the banks of the Irrawaddy River in the blazing sun. She spied among a beach vendor’s wares an array of parasols. Anxious for the protection from the sun, she purchased one of the waxed paper umbrellas and went on her way. All that afternoon she noticed the locals were shyly smiling at her and giggling as she passed. On her return, she asked the hotel concierge what was funny. It seems she had paraded through a multitude of temples with a turmeric-dyed parasol, a color reserved for monks.
This ancient spice, turmeric, lives three distinct lives. It is a dye that produces a brilliant orangey-gold to burnished saffron color highly prized within the Buddhist community. It is an ingestible that contains newly-confirmed medicinal and healthful properties. Finally, it is a culinary flavoring available in two forms, fresh and dried powder, used unsparingly in the cuisines of its native China and Indonesia, and in Nepal, Iran, Vietnam, India, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Pakistan, Morocco, Tunisia and France.
Turmeric is cousin to ginger and galangal, all of which are rhizomes used both fresh or as dried powder. It’s a well-known key ingredient in curries, which may lead people to believe that it is either hot or spicy in its flavor. On the contrary, fresh turmeric is faintly sweet and nutty with a pleasant, slightly bitter aftertaste. Dried and pulverized, the taste of turmeric becomes mildly earthy and aromatically woody. It was once used as a less expensive alternative for saffron. In fact, in France it is known as Bourbon saffron when imported from the once French colonial islands of La Réunion and Mauritius.
Medicinally, it has long been used as a digestive, an anti-inflammatory and an antiseptic. Recent studies have confirmed its therapeutic virtues in the treatment and cure of liver diseases such as jaundice and bilious fevers. It has zero toxic effects on the body. In 2012, a U.S. patent was granted to the University of Rochester and two other entities in the use of turmeric in the battle against cancer, acne and baldness, among other conditions.
As a dye, turmeric is considered unstable. However, it is inexpensive and readily available for decorative uses, be they fabric or the painting of the human body. Indian Tamil women use it to decorate their hands and feet in the same way that Arab women use henna. In Bengali wedding ceremonies, a paste of turmeric is used to decorate the limbs of the brides and the faces of the grooms.
Turmeric is occasionally used in dessert dishes, but more frequently found in savory recipes. Today we are offering a variation of a Filipino Pork Stew, a richly satisfying dish that will suit our currently changeable weather. As turmeric is a new-found toy in our kitchen it needs to be played with more often. There is a Thai Duck Stew that is niggling at the edges of consciousness, just waiting. Soon.