Friday’s food: Turmeric

Available fresh or dried

If you’ve eaten ballpark-style mustard, then you’ve eaten turmeric.

Long before one, two, three strikes you’re out at the old ball game, this seasoning had already been established as a major player in Asian and Indian cuisine.  Want to add it to your spice rack?  Turmeric is widely available at a  grocery store near you or search out a local Asian or Indian grocery store to buy it fresh.

Turmeric is native to Indonesia and southern India, where it has been harvested for more than 5,000 years. It has served an important role in many traditional cultures throughout the East, including being a revered member of the Ayurvedic pharmacopeia. While Arab traders introduced it into Europe in the 13th century, it has only recently become popular in Western cultures. Much of its recent popularity is owed to the recent research that has highlighted its therapeutic properties. The leading commercial producers of turmeric include India, Indonesia, China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Haiti and Jamaica.
World’s Healthiest Foods (WHF)

Getting back to the ballpark mustard, aside from the yellow color of the mustard seeds themselves, turmeric also helps to give it that bright yellow hue.  It has been used commercially as a textile dye for a very long time.

As with so many foods whose origins drift back into the mists of time, it was just as popular as a medicine as for its culinary uses (Information here is for turmeric’s use as a food, not as a supplement).

The volatile oil fraction of turmeric has demonstrated significant anti-inflammatory activity in a variety of experimental models. Even more potent than its volatile oil is the yellow or orange pigment of turmeric, which is called curcumin. Curcumin is thought to be the primary pharmacological agent in turmeric. In numerous studies, curcumin’s anti-inflammatory effects have been shown to be comparable to the potent drugs hydrocortisone and phenylbutazone as well as over-the-counter anti-inflammatory agents such as Motrin. Unlike the drugs, which are associated with significant toxic effects (ulcer formation, decreased white blood cell count, intestinal bleeding), curcumin produces no toxicity (WHF).

In addition to the anti-inflammatory activity, it is also believed to help inflammatory bowel disease, relief for rheumatoid arthritis, help for cystic fibrosis, cancer prevention support, improved liver function, cardiovascular support, cholesterol lowering support, and it may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.  So is a tasty vegetable curry starting to look like yummy medicine right about now?

Curry powder, a diverse mixture of many spices, can range from mild to fiery hot and varies in flavor depending on the intended use – whether for vegetables, fish, meat, etc.  Although turmeric is almost always one of the spices in the mixture, the amounts can vary greatly.  So if you are going after the curcumin in particular, it would be best to buy a bottle of turmeric instead of curry powder for your spice rack.  Also, if you are just getting started with Far Eastern cuisine, it may be more cost effective to use the powder as a fresh rhizome may spoil before you use it all.

Image info: Wikimedia Commons.

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