Turmeric is a spice commonly used in India, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and many other Southeast-Asian countries. Its magic comes in myriad forms. First, as a spice it adds both aromatic and warm, earthy tones to curries and other dishes. Secondly, turmeric is often used as a natural tint or dye to color everything from food to clothing to hair tints, skin creams, and other cosmetics. Third, turmeric has been found to have various medical applications and is currently under study for its role in treating a variety of physical ailments including wounds and infections, digestive disorders, and even cancer.
Like ginger, turmeric is a rhizome-a gnarly type of root that appears brownish on the outside, but is bright orange on the inside. When dried and made into a powder, turmeric is bright yellow in color. While fresh turmeric is available at some specialty cooking shops and Asian stores, normally it is the dried form that is used in Thai and other Asian cuisines. For example, turmeric is what gives Thai Yellow Curry its distinctive golden hue. At the same time, the spice lends this dish a distinctive flavor we instinctively recognize as “curry”-warm and fragrant, with slightly bitter overtones that are balanced out in Thai cooking with the saltiness of fish sauce, plus the richness and subtle sweetness of coconut milk. Turmeric is also used to “spice up” other Thai dishes, such as Thai Massaman Curry.
In ancient Southeast-Asian cultures, as well as in modern times, turmeric has been in demand as a dye or coloring agent. In Indian as well as certain Thai and other South-east Asian religious traditions, turmeric has been used for centuries to imbue holy robes and other clothing with color. In India and various parts of the East, women have been known to rub turmeric on their skin, both to enhance their appearance with a natural glowing color as well as to inhibit unwanted hair growth(!). In modern-day Thailand, one company is currently developing a skin cream offering the anti-inflammatory and skin enhancing properties of turmeric.
In Thailand, turmeric is also one of the main ingredients in a common spa treatment. A steam bath is created using a “tea” made of herbs and spices such as turmeric, lemongrass, tamarind, and bergamot. It is said to be an effective treatment for sore muscles, skin rashes, inflammation, respiratory ailments, and other ailments.
In fact, it is perhaps in medical applications more than in any other area that turmeric is now being touted as a rising star. Today turmeric is under study in the scientific community as well as in common use throughout various alternative and traditional medical disciplines. Turmeric is an antioxidant with strong anti-inflammatory capability. It can be used as a digestive agent, as well as a balm for wounds, burns, and deeper skin infections. More recently, curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, has been found to be effective in inhibiting cancer cells, including breast and prostate tumors. Curcumin is also currently under investigation as a possible treatment for Alzheimer’s disease as well as liver disorders. These days, curcumin is often ingested by healthy individuals as a daily supplement to ward off disease (taken in capsule form), available at health food stores around the world.
However, there is perhaps a better, more enjoyable way to add the health benefits of turmeric to your diet. Instead of popping pills, many health care professionals advise eating one to three servings per week of an appetizing dish containing turmeric, such as Thai Yellow Curry.