May 1, 2015

Turmeric Craze & an Easy Elixir

Awash in a fragrant humidity, we began our trek through the spice forest outside of Goa, India.

It was mid-morning, and after a twisting ride with frequent wrong turns and rolled-down windows with arms pointing in every direction, we had arrived at the Savoi Plantation, a 200 year old organic spice plantation. 

Hibiscus bloomed in vibrant colors of red, orange, and pink. Butterflies lazily swooped by our eyelashes, and birds tip toed by on crooked branches, ducking beneath leaves. Mark sat quietly on a picnic bench while I darted around chasing shadows and birds, happy with a case of nature jollies.

After a drink of coconut milk, hibiscus and green chili (yes it was strange!), we got started on our walk. As we followed our spice guide, a retired botanist who had set up camp on the grounds of the plantation, I felt a comforting buzz of life from the plants, insects and animals surrounding me. This was what it meant to be on an organic farm: a feeling of noisy commotion, a complicated but simple beauty wrapped up in tangled, sun-struck chaos.

Halfway through our walk our guide stopped to kneel in the dirt: yanking a stalk of green from the ground, he produced a fat looking root. "This is turmeric," he said. "Ginger's sister; it's been used in India for thousands of years."

Turmeric, or Curcuma longa isn't in fact a root, but a rhizome, or underground stem, same as ginger. The two are indeed closely related, but we rarely see turmeric in its raw form the way we do ginger. The earthy, bitter spice is most familiar when appearing as curry powder: the familiar bright-yellow powder we sprinkle into a stir fry, or rub onto chicken. It's fun to make your own signature curry blend, too.

my friend, the botanist 

As an ingredient, turmeric is famous for a number of qualities. It's obvious why this spice/medicine has become super popular in the U.S. recently. 

1) Its color!

The color has earned its use as face paint and food coloring. In the food world, it is sometimes called "Indian saffron" just because it makes food yellow (like saffron) but it has no relation to true saffron. Remember Yellow No. 5? No bueno. Just this year Kraft food started replacing the synthetic food coloring in its mac and cheese with turmeric. Gotta love orange foods. 

An array of Goan style curries 

2) Its health benefits - especially as an anti-inflammatory

Turmeric's active compound curcumin has been shown in medical trials to reduce inflammation in the body, and has even been studied for its effect on certain types of cancer. At my last count there were over 12 different types of turmeric supplements at Whole Foods. If you're curious about taking it on a regular basis, talk to a professional. But, if you want to add some healthy spice to your life, see my tasty elixir recipe at the end of this post - great for post-exercise.

3) Its taste

Turmeric may be bitter if eaten alone, but it adds an earthiness and warmth to foods when cooked. I love using curry with squash, or with lamb, yogurt sauces, daal and cauliflower. Also makes a great spice for breaded shrimp (seen below, Goan-style):

4) It's not expensive, in the dried form

While maybe viewed as "filler" in spice blends, this earthy, humble spice has such high demand the world over that it's grown in huge volumes, keeping prices low. India produces almost all of the planet's turmeric, and consumes 80% of it. It's quite stable as a dried product, but for a higher price it can also be purchased fresh (imported from Hawaii)

5) Yes, it's ancient, but also new

The use dates back 4000 years to Vedic culture in India, but here in the U.S. it's just started to catch on - even create a trend ­- due, in my opinion, to the rise in popularity of yoga and mind-body health foods. Check out this fancy drink made by a company called "Temple" from fresh Hawaiian turmeric. 

Turmeric & Mint Elixir

An easy and refreshing drink that is awesome after a work out. (And hey, maybe you can hold off on that ibuprofen)

1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon honey
a few mint leaves
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
1 TB hot water
cold water or coconut water

In a glass jar with a lid, combine the turmeric powder, honey, mint leaves and a pinch of salt and mash together with a wooden spoon. Add the apple cider vinegar and hot water and stir to combine. Add the cold water or coconut water to just below the rim, then close the lid and shake vigorously. Enjoy!

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