Shortly after he agreed to support his son’s marriage to a Westerner, my future South Indian father-in-law (appa) gave me this piece of advice: “When cooking, put turmeric in every dish.”
I looked at him incredulously and nodded affirmatively, but I was thinking to myself, “Are you really serious?”
Cooking with turmeric? I could not understand why he would say such a thing. First of all, I had only met him six days before. The point seemed random, even irrelevant. We went back home to New York that evening.
What did I even know about cooking with turmeric? I was vaguely aware that it was the yellow part of “curry powder.”
Curry powder is that stuff you can buy at any grocery store. But curry powers typically combine turmeric with a bunch of other spices, so it isn’t fair to judge turmeric by curry powder if this is your only experience with it.
I also knew that almost everything I ate while in India was yellow colored. Turmeric was clearly a big part of Indian cuisine, but every dish? I thought that wouldn’t be possible.
South Indian Cooking With Turmeric Opened My Mind
I felt responsible to live up to my nod, my word, so I set myself the task of learning more about Indian cooking with turmeric.
One of the first things I learned was the secret to South Indian food. It’s a spice blend of black mustard seeds, a tiny white lentil known as urad dal, turmeric powder, and red chili power.
These four items form the foundation for all manner of dal soups and stews made from lentils and beans, and nearly all South Indian vegetable dishes. Unlike the typical heavily spiced North Indian dish, this was a light, refreshing flavor profile.
I find the South Indian preparation extremely soothing, and abundant turmeric is why.
To make it, black mustard seeds first “pop” in the oil and become mildly pungent, and a tiny white lentils urad dal browns for a nutty and slightly chewy textural component. Turmeric is then added, forming the glue that ties everything together, and finally red chili is the accent.
I have a post titled, “How to Cook Any Vegetable, South Indian Style,” that teaches how to achieve this lovely gently-spiced flavor profile. Please take a look for more details.
How Does Turmeric Taste, And How Do I Cook With It?
I know, those who are unfamiliar want to ask, what does turmeric taste like? That is obviously an important question.
The answer is, it doesn’t taste like much. Really.
It isn’t spicy like a chili, ginger, or garlic, but it is mildly pungent. It also has a very mild bitter and astringent flavor. Three flavors combine to create a masterpiece. It is fairly balanced, so the mild overall flavor is complex and mellow.
It isn’t sharp, it doesn’t bite, doesn’t burn, isn’t boring, and it generally isn’t offensive. But it could be if you don’t cook it properly.It is best to awaken turmeric in hot oil or fat before adding the rest of your ingredients.Click To Tweet
The key is to not use too much, such as way more than a recipe calls for. Too much of a good thing and you won’t enjoy it.
Also, it is best to awaken the turmeric in hot oil or fat before adding the rest of the ingredients. But it burns easily, so use medium to low heat, and be ready to move on with your cooking process after adding the turmeric (such as within 30 seconds).
Some recipes do call for adding the powder to a liquid, and that is okay, but follow the rule of not using too much, and I’ll add a second rule. Make sure you cook it out to remove any raw taste.
This means give the turmeric at least 5–10 minutes of cooking to fully incorporate into the dish and awaken its deeper flavor. It seems there is a reaction that happens between turmeric and heat that improves its flavor.
I have a practice of observing flavors and creating a balance of flavor in all my cooking. Turmeric’s mild trinity of pungent, bitter, and astringent is a supportive base that only enhances the inherent taste of any food in my experience.
Can I Eat Turmeric Root?
Turmeric is most common and useful in powdered form, but you can also buy the fresh roots. While they can be hard to find, you should definitely buy one if you see it, just to familiarize yourself. Turmeric roots look like ginger root, but tend to be smaller, with a brown skin bordering on deep orange.
The fresh root is actually amazing. Once you cut into it, the color is so intensely orange. It is like nothing else. It smells bright and earthy, and the taste is really intense.
The problem is that it is hard not to overpower your food with fresh turmeric root. It doesn't mellow out with cooking either. The turmeric root pieces still taste strong when you bite them.
This is why I don’t recommend fresh turmeric root for general cooking.
I do enjoy it as a tea or elixir though. This is yummy.
For the simplest preparation possible, simmer 4 parts chopped turmeric root with 1 part ginger root for about 10 minutes. Strain and enjoy.
For beautifully balanced turmeric flavor, get my Turmeric Elixir Cure-All Recipe
Turmeric Loves Vegetables
After a few years of practice, I can confidently say that turmeric is a spice that really does go with almost anything, especially vegetables.
After learning the South Indian spice preparation, I started to really appreciate turmeric, and I began to add it to all manner of vegetable sautés, roasts, and braises.
Being a Westerner, I enjoy local vegetables that aren’t common in India. When it comes to some of the common vegetables for Indian cooking—such as cauliflower, potato, eggplant, radish, and spinach—I have different cultural experiences of them.
Combine turmeric with a little garlic, citrus, and salt if you like, and you are golden (pun intended).
So naturally, supported by my father-in-law’s advice, I experimented with my turmeric and vegetables. It has been over six years.
These days, I regularly add turmeric to vegetable sautés and braises, especially cooked greens, and it only enhances their natural flavors and makes them taste better.
Combine turmeric with a little garlic, citrus, and salt if you like, and you are golden (pun intended). I haven’t mentioned turmeric’s gorgeous golden color. Personally, I love it. I think it makes everything prettier.
My Braised Baby Turnips and Greens with Turmeric, Garlic, and Lime Juice is a good example of an innovative use of turmeric.
Ginger also combines beautifully with turmeric, especially with all manner of Asian cuisines.
For roasting vegetables, it is hard to go wrong by spicing it up with any combination of turmeric, cumin, coriander, red chili, black pepper, garlic, lemon or lime juice, and salt.
Use more turmeric than any other individual spice, and it will carry you to sheer joy in the mouth.
Half The World Already Loves Turmeric
If you have read up to this point, I think you have understood that cooking with turmeric isn’t only for Indian curry. The possibilities are endless, as turmeric has been a common spice throughout Asia for thousands of years.
The plant is thought to have originated in Southeast Asia, likely Vietnam, China, or Western India.
It is still prized in these areas, and also commonly used in Middle Eastern cooking (Iranian khoresh dishes start with onions caramelized in oil and turmeric), the traditional Moroccan spice mix ras el hanout includes turmeric, South African, Cambodian, Indonesian, and Thai cuisines all feature it.
Yes, that is why Thai restaurants usually offer a curried rice noodle dish, and a yellow coconut curry is made with turmeric.
Now I Crave Turmeric
What started as (what turned out to be good) advice, has now turned into a kind of compulsion or craving for cooking with turmeric on my part.
I attribute this to its tremendous health benefits, which I will talk about in detail a bit later. First, I want to luxuriate in some of turmeric’s finest offerings, and share them with you.
In Indian cuisine there is something called yellow dal. Yes, yellow from the turmeric kind of dal.
Yellow dal is actually the most simple and comforting of dals, and I believe the reason is due to the power of turmeric. When we look at some of the incredible health benefits of turmeric (at the end of this article), you’ll see why.
Just today for lunch, I followed my craving for an Indian breakfast porridge called upma. A recipe for that is forthcoming, so please check back.
It’s made from the same seasoning base I told you about earlier, except with more turmeric, and fresh green chili instead of chili powder, and the addition of fresh ginger and lemon juice. And the spices are sautéed in a liberal amount of ghee, which is another nutritional powerhouse I have written about.
If you have even a sense for the incredible health benefits of all these ingredients, you can probably understand my craving. After eating this dish I felt profoundly satisfied and balanced.
In fact, I am thinking I need more turmeric.
Last summer, I experimented with a turmeric elixir, made from boiling down fresh turmeric root, ginger root, and black peppercorns into a concentrate.
When it was still warm, I added honey and fresh lemon juice, and bottled it in glass jars.
Whenever I wanted a refreshing drink after working out in the garden, I’d mix some elixir with cold water. I will definitely make some more for the upcoming season. Maybe you would also like to try it? Let me know if you want the recipe.
Turmeric’s Health Benefits Are Off The Charts!
While this post is about my love affair with turmeric that I come by honestly due to my love affair with my husband (and his father), there are actually proven benefits that turmeric is worth putting in everything. Here are a few highlights.
1. A powerful anti-inflammatory
The majority of research on turmeric focuses on curcumin, one of turmeric’s active components. Curcumin is a flavonoid that supports a healthy inflammatory response and supports general well-being.
Some researchers claim turmeric’s anti-inflammatory effectiveness is comparable to pharmaceutical medicines.
2. Detoxifies the liver
Turmeric protects the liver from toxins and pathogens by destroying toxins. It also helps to rebuild a damaged liver.
3. Promotes digestion and normalizes metabolism
Turmeric promotes the secretion and movement of bile, helping to reduce gas, bloating, and cramping, and actually aids in the digestion of protein. Turmeric is associated with improving intestinal flora, otherwise known as the human microbiome.
4. Supports the immune response
5. Purifies the blood and regulates blood fat, and blood sugar
Also helpful for removing stagnant blood and for regulating menses.
6. Reduces congestion
It can help sooth a hoarse throat and a minor cough. It also protects the lungs from pollution and toxins, supporting the respiratory system.
7. Teeming with antioxidants
Turmeric fights and even reduces the formation of free radicals. One study shows turmeric is 10 times more effective than Vitamin C.
8. Supports healthy skin, hair, and nails
Beneficial when taken internally, but also beneficial when applied externally.
9. Reduces cancer risk
Studies done on mice and rats have shown that curcumin in turmeric had a wide range of anticancer benefits, including many of those already listed above.
How Much Turmeric Do I Need To Get The Health Benefit?
Some researchers claim you need to consume copious amounts of turmeric to get a benefit, but other studies show that as little as 1/50th of a teaspoon can confer benefits.
You can choose what to believe, but in India, people consume an average of a half to a full teaspoon a day.
It isn’t clear if you need to consume turmeric every single day to get the benefits, but eating it regularly is probably a good thing, just as my father-in-law advised.
I hope this article has helped you to imagine how you can enjoy more turmeric in your diet. You can also keep reading Buttered Veg, and you will find lots of recipes calling for turmeric.
When purchasing turmeric, I recommend you buy it from an Indian store if possible, as it is sure to be fresher than what you’d get from a regular grocery store.
Amazon has some good sources I am recommending for you below. These are affiliate links, so if you purchase through them I will get a small commission at no extra cost to you.
Happy cooking with turmeric!
I was surprised there was no mention of black pepper. It is my understanding that black pepper with turmeric amplifies its health benefits. Can you speak to this? Thanks!
Thanks so much for your comment. As you know, I am an Ayurvedic digestive health coach and much of my wisdom is informed by Ayurveda. Historically, there is no mention or need to include black pepper with turmeric. This idea is very modern. It came about after scientists studied CURCUMIN EXTRACT (not the root) and found it's bioavailability is increased with the addition of black pepper.
Those same researchers also acknowledged that maybe taking the whole root (or powder) also helped with bioavailability - but of course they didn't study it! I found this article helpful, and took this quote from it: "And the conclusion of the scientists who did the initial study on BCM-95 states that the study supports the “probable” role for non-curcuminoid components of turmeric in the absorbability of curcumin."
A problem with insisting on black pepper, from an Ayurvedic perspective, is that both turmeric and black pepper are pungent and sharp, so taken together it is very much so. If pungent and sharp is what you need, then okay. If it isn't, then you will be better off with one or the other. And in case I didn't make it clear earlier. You are better off taking turmeric whole, rather than an extract. We always say that the body recognizes the whole food because it is part of nature's intelligence.
A smile??? It literally got me choked up, the way you write is incredible. Your passion for cooking is transparent in every phrase. I am a bachelor of 53 going on 54 and live alone so necessity has taught me to cook and 'innovate' :). I'm from south India btw and was looking for how to make pepper water (aka Rasam) when I came across your site. I read your whole article about substitutes right till the end and I loved it. Thanks for sharing this 'critical' information especially to a guy who's almost always hungry and looking to rustle up some tasty grub 😀 (I enjoy cooking 😉 and sharing with some colleagues)
Although I didn't get the answer to my question, I enjoyed reading your post.
Kudos to you and I would love to see some more simple and easy recipes using just basic ingredients (turmeric or curcumin, cummin seeds,mustard seeds, kashmiri mirch powder, black pepper corns and powder,corriander powder, roasted garam masala powder, cayenne dried chillies, some tamarind paste, ginger and garlic paste and curry powder is all I have)
Would be much obliged if you could post some recipes with the ingredients I have please?
You and yours, take care and stay safe
Thanks once again
Best regards Kevin
What an incredibly lovely note. It made me so happy to read it. I am guessing you saw the recommendations from India to drink Rasam to protect against Covid? Yes, drinking warm liquids of any type is going to help you because it dissolves the protective barrier on the virus so your body can defend against it. As for your requests - thank you! I will endeavor to publish more recipes using simple ingredients. For now, have you tried entering your ingredient in the search function on the side bar? You can also see all my Indian recipes from the drop down menu under "Recipes." The ingredients you listed are some of my favorites, so I am sure I've got some recipes for you there! Also, make sure you subscribe to my newsletter so you don't miss future posts. Thanks again, and please take care there!