It’s warm, it’s yellow – and it’s a nightmare to clean off your kitchen countertop. Turmeric is a mainstay of many cuisines in north Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and latterly has become a voguish addition to lattes and a prized supplement on account of the spice’s claimed health benefits.
Those properties, celebrated in ayurvedic medicine for millennia, are now being confirmed by scientific studies. A new paper published this week found that curcumin, the natural compound found in turmeric, could be as effective as medications to treat excess stomach acid and indigestion. The egg-yolk yellow spice is also thought to have anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties.
We asked some experts for tips on increasing the amount of turmeric in our diets.
Many people may know turmeric only in powdered form and use it mostly when cooking curries, but it is actually a root similar to ginger, and is commonly used in this form across India, says the chef and food writer Maunika Gowardhan, who is originally from Mumbai. Though it is harder to source fresh in the UK, most Asian stores sell it, she says. “I often use it in scrambled eggs or to make paneer bhurji,” (scrambled paneer cheese).
She recommends grating a thumb-sized piece of fresh turmeric into scrambled eggs or paneer, “then add cumin, some green chillis, fresh coriander – that’s your breakfast ready for the weekend”. Do not use too much, she cautions – fresh turmeric is “much more robust and dynamic in flavour”.
Anything left could be pickled, suggests Gowardhan – she has a recipe for “super, super easy” turmeric and ginger pickle which she says is “shards of fresh turmeric and ginger pickled with black mustard, chilli powder and mustard oil, with a pinch of sugar and salt so it’s spicy-sweet.” A small amount served with flatbread or rice and dal – itself frequently made with turmeric – is “just perfect”, she says.
Yoghurt or porridge
“Turmeric can throw people because though the vibrant yellow colour is unmistakable, the flavour is a little more elusive: I’d go for bitter, but in a good way,” says the Guardian columnist Felicity Cloake. Most people in Britain will reach first for powdered turmeric, which, she says, “tends to be used to enhance other spices, rather than standing alone, but I think it works well with rich or creamy ingredients”. As well as in scrambled eggs or tofu, she recommends mixing a pinch through thick yoghurt or buttery rice like kedgeree, “often alongside something bolder and warmer like black pepper or ginger”.
Meera Sodha, who writes the weekly New Vegan column for the Guardian’s Feast magazine, also suggests using it in porridge: “It’s got very warm notes … so you could add cinnamon, turmeric, little bit of black pepper – or just turmeric if you want, with some honey.”
Generations of Indian children have been given warm turmeric milk by their mothers when unwell, says Gowardhan. Many of them, like her, hated it at the time (Sodha says the same thing), though both now say they love it.
Sodha’s recipe recommends using fresh or powdered turmeric with grated ginger root, a pinch of ground cardamom and honey in 500ml of any milk “in the morning for a jolt of health or last thing at night for a soothing evening drink”.
Vegetables and potatoes
Alongside curries and rice dishes, Sodha often roasts vegetables with turmeric and lemon. Gowardhan suggests frying garlic, cumin and fresh green chillis in oil, then adding turmeric, a large pinch of sugar and salt and adding to boiled potatoes with a squeeze of lime and coriander.
It all sounds delicious, but how much turmeric do we need to have health benefits? Will a warming cup of turmeric tea do any good? The nutritionist Jo Travers says that turmeric has “lots of beneficial compounds”, and while the latest study tested people taking 2g of curcumin a day – which would be equivalent to a great deal more turmeric – “there is some evidence that shows that even if you have turmeric in just culinary amounts, you can still get some anti-inflammatory benefits from it. You can obviously take mega doses, but even if you take small amounts, it can still have some benefit.”
That said, Travers adds, “if you’re getting a turmeric teabag from the supermarket, the chances of it having any of the active compounds are quite slim”. An infusion of freshly grated spice in water would probably be different, however. The provenance of the spice is everything, she says. That point is echoed by Sodha, who says ground turmeric should ideally be slightly oily, and recommends sourcing companies selling freshly harvested turmeric.
With Holland & Barrett selling eight bottles of turmeric tablets an hour, a great many people are already taking supplements – are they right to? “To be honest, it’s unclear,” says Travers – since scientific studies are usually done on single ingredients, “but that’s not how our bodies have evolved to eat food”. Some people are likely to benefit from taking a large dose while others will respond well to a small amount, she suggests. Her own advice, she says, “is to eat a balanced diet that contains foods that are good for you.
“That is the thing that makes the most difference. And if you already have all that in place, by all means, try taking a turmeric supplement and see how you get on.”
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