Turmeric Explained

July 19, 2017 posted in Behind the Scenes

Turmeric is receiving worldwide interest, due to the many health-giving properties being debated by scientists, and natural health practitioners.

Whatever you believe about turmeric (and a Google search will give you lots of pros and cons), we believe it is a wonderful spice, and one that can be enjoyed culinarily in many different ways.

We are not health practitioners, as our expertise relates only to our knowledge of the growing, harvesting, processing and uses of spices and herbs in foods.

Therefore, we thought that a thorough explanation (adapted from my 2006 edition of Spice Notes and Recipes) of turmeric would be useful.

Turmeric is the rhizome (the part of the root system that grows off the primary tuber) of a tropical perennial plant which, for harvesting purposes, is grown as an annual. Turmeric has long, flat, bright-green leaves growing up from the base to 1 m high and looks similar to ginger, and some lilies with its pale-yellow flowers. The rhizomes, which are commonly referred to as fingers, are ginger-like in appearance and 5–8 cm long. They are rounder in cross-section than ginger, measure 1.5 cm thick and are deep orange–yellow in colour. Powdered turmeric is bright yellow, has a distinct earthy aroma and surprisingly pleasing, sharp, bitter, spicy, lingering depth of flavour.

A Memorable Turmeric Experience

When referring to turmeric, I can’t help recalling one visit to Kerala in the south of India when we particularly wanted to see a large turmeric plantation. Up until that time we had only seen plots of turmeric growing among pepper vines and nutmeg and clove trees in small-holding spice gardens. One day after seeing ginger drying on a massive scale, we were informed of the existence of large turmeric plantations in the same area, which is logical because ginger and turmeric plants are similar and grow well in the same conditions. We had travelled for hours over rough roads to find the ginger being dried on the hillsides; that was only the beginning. The chap who was with us said the turmeric plantation was not far away, so off we headed down a narrow track, the wheels of the Indian-made Ambassador car barely straddling the hump in the middle of the ‘road’. We had to get out and walk a few times because the car was bottoming out on ground that would have been more regularly traversed by bullock cart. The sun began to go down, and we wondered if we would see the turmeric plantation before dark.

Upon finally arriving at an open area, the driver pointed out a biblical-looking mud brick shed that housed the harvested turmeric waiting to be cleaned and sent to market. As we surveyed the freshly dug field in the warm, fading afternoon light, lit more now by a tropical full moon shining through grey and light-pink, fine atmospheric moisture, we asked where the turmeric plantation was. To which we received the reply that this was the plantation, and all the turmeric had just been harvested!

I am sure few people have travelled as far and as long as we did that day to gaze upon a turmeric plantation with no turmeric growing. We at least have a timeless image in our minds (it was too dark to take photos) of the undulating landscape studded with coconut palms at the end of an almost inaccessible track, some hours drive outside Cochin. I was fascinated by the experience of inhaling the aromas of sharp earthiness and pungency given off by the stored turmeric. At first I thought it was the smell of the turned soil and dirt clinging to the rhizomes, however, upon reflection, whenever I smell good-quality turmeric now, it takes me back to the same earthy smell of that turmeric storage shed.

Origin and History

Turmeric is not known in a truly wild state and is believed to have evolved from wild Curcuma through a process of continual selection and cultivation by vegetative propagation of the fingers. Curcuma is indigenous to Southern Asia, where it was domesticated and featured prominently in both medicinal and religious applications there. Turmeric was listed in an Assyrian herbal in 600 BC as a colouring and had reached China by the seventh century AD. Marco Polo described it as occurring at Koncha in China in 1280, noting its similarity to saffron. One wonders whether the young Marco had been sampling some more interesting substances to come up with such a deduction, for besides colour, there is little saffron and turmeric have in common. Even the bright yellow of turmeric is quite different to the golden orange–yellow of infused saffron.

Turmeric was known in the Malagasy Republic (Madagascar) in the eighth century and by the 13th century was being used as a dye in West Africa. Turmeric is a spice that features in Ayurvedic medicine, the traditional ‘natural’ medicine of India, and is said to be a mild digestive. Ointments based on turmeric are applied as an antiseptic, and turmeric water is an Asian cosmetic that is said to be good for one’s skin. Turmeric is used extensively as a colouring in foods (including confectionery and pharmaceuticals) in response to the increasing consumer demand for natural colours.

Yellow turmeric paper can be used as a test for alkalinity, which turns it brown. The textile industry has also used turmeric for many years as a dye, even though by today’s standards it is not at all fast. It is likely that as the price of turmeric is pushed up with greater culinary use, longer-lasting synthetic dyes will replace it.


After the turmeric rhizomes have been lifted, they are put into boiling water for about an hour. This has the effect of speeding up the drying time and de-naturing them, so they will not sprout. It also aids even distribution of colour in the rhizome; when fresh turmeric is cut, one will notice the orange–yellow colour is not evenly distributed in the cross-section. The fingers are then dried in the sun – a gelatinisation of the starches during boiling makes them rock-hard, and this is why they are almost impossible to grind domestically.

Once dry, the fingers are polished to remove the outer skin, rootlets and any remaining soil particles. The traditional way to polish turmeric fingers was for workers to wrap their hands or feet in several layers of gunny sack to provide abrasion (as well as protection for the worker) and to then rub the turmeric vigorously. Another method was to put the turmeric fingers in a long gunny sack with some stones. Two workers would then shake the bag between them (in the same way you would wave a beach towel to get the sand out of it) transforming the dirty brown rhizomes into smooth, dark-yellow fingers ready for market. Nowadays polishing is performed in large wire or perforated-metal drums that are rotated on an axle, so the rubbish falls out through the holes and the polished fingers are left behind in the drum.

Ground turmeric is made by first crushing the slate-hard fingers in a hammer-mill, then transferring them to a grinder set up to produce the familiar, bright-yellow powder. Turmeric oleoresin is extracted for use as a natural colour (E100) in the food and pharmaceutical industries, where it is sometimes referred to as curcuma oleoresin.

Buying and Storage

An increase in the popularity of Asian foods in Australia and the United States of America, which began in the 1980s, helped cooks to become aware of the virtue of using fresh turmeric rhizome for its colour and flavour. Fresh turmeric is often available from specialty produce merchants, particularly those that cater to the Asian market. The rhizomes should be plump, firm and clean. Store fresh turmeric in an open container in the cupboard, in the same way as you keep your fresh onions and garlic, where it will last for up to two weeks. Turmeric leaves (used in Malay and Indonesian cooking) and the young tender shoots for Thai dishes are also available from Asian produce stores.

There are two main types of turmeric powder: Madras and Alleppey. It is interesting to note that many spices have prefixes derived from geographic regions, however, this does not necessarily mean that is where they are grown. The name may be given because a certain grade or type of the spice was always available from the traders in a particular area or perhaps the district the spice was named after had become better-known than other areas for producing it. Madras turmeric is grown in Tamil Nadu (in India) and is traded mostly in Madras. Alleppey turmeric is produced in Kerala, and takes its name from the beautiful, waterway-laced Alleppey district near Cochin, where much of this turmeric is traded.

Madras turmeric is light yellow and has been the most commonly available variety for culinary use. The English regarded it as the superior grade (probably because it colours without contributing much flavour) and Madras turmeric has been used primarily to colour curries, mustards and pickles. Madras turmeric has a curcumin (the colouring agent) content of around 2.5%.

Alleppey turmeric is much darker in colour. Its curcumin content on average at 5% and may be as high as 6.5%, making it a more effective colouring agent with superior fresh turmeric flavour notes. Alleppey turmeric more closely resembles the flavour of fresh turmeric and has a somewhat earthy aroma with surprisingly delicate top notes of lemon and mint, reminiscent of its cousin, ginger. The texture is ‘oily’ due to the higher curcumin content, and when blending with other spices I suggest sieving it through a small strainer to prevent clumping.

Turmeric powder should be stored in the same way as other ground spices, in airtight packs protected from light and extremes of heat and humidity. Under these conditions, both the Alleppey and Madras varieties will keep their colour and full flavour for 12–15 months.


Once one gets over the notion of turmeric being mainly used to colour food, it is remarkable how versatile its flavour becomes in a wide variety of dishes. It is of course most often associated with curries where the right amount, especially of Alleppey turmeric, makes a significant contribution to the flavour.

The popularity of beverages other than tea and coffee, has seen a resurgence in the consumption of herbal teas and spiced drinks such as Chai. We now make a delicious Turmeric Chai that is made only from spices that compliment the flavour of turmeric. It is easy to make and is a great alternative to a cappuccino or latte.

Fresh compared to Powder

Fresh turmeric is grated into many Asian dishes, and used in making commercial and home-made pastes. Turmeric powder will always be much stronger, as the water content has been significantly reduced on drying, and the drying process concentrates the active ingredients. Should you wish to use turmeric powder as a substitute for fresh, use about one quarter of the amount in the recipe for fresh. For example, for 4 teaspoons of grated fresh turmeric rhizome, substitute with 1 teaspoon of turmeric powder (preferably Alleppey).

A Moroccan Chermoula spice blend is dependent upon the warm earthiness of turmeric to amalgamate spices such as cumin, paprika, chilli and pepper with onion, garlic, parsley and coriander leaf. Our Kuwaiti Fish Stew with Black Lime relies on the inclusion of turmeric for the harmonisation of its cardamom, pepper, cumin and chilli notes, with coriander leaves and green dill. I have found turmeric goes well in stir-fries with lime leaves, galangal, chilli and Australian native lemon myrtle. Kapitan chicken is a delicious dish that European colonials enjoyed in Malaya, and the prime constituents of its flavour come from onions, garlic, chilli and turmeric.

For more great Turmeric recipe ideas, click here: Turmeric Recipes

Although turmeric is often called Indian saffron, turmeric should never be used in a recipe as a substitute for true saffron, as the flavour is quite different. One can make an attractive and tasty yellow rice dish, though, with turmeric. When cooking by absorption, for every cup of rice covered with water, add 1⁄2 tsp of turmeric powder, a 4 cm quill of cinnamon, 3 whole cloves and 4 green cardamom pods.

Always be very careful not to spill turmeric on your clothes, as it will leave stains that are almost impossible to remove!

Spice & Herb Bible 3rd Edition
Spice & Herb Bible 3rd Edition

For more information on spices and herbs, see my latest edition The Spice & Herb Bible 3rd Edition by Ian Hemphill with Recipes by Kate Hemphill published by Robert Rose Inc. Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

In 2015 The Spice & Herb Bible 3rd Edition was a finalist in the ‘Reference and Scholarship’ Category of the James Beard Awards, which many consider to be the ‘the Oscars of the food world’.

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