A relative to ginger, the star ingredient in curry blends, and a traditional source of Asian folk remedies, but for all its prowess, humble turmeric looks like nothing so much as big, fat grub.
While its appearance may be less than glamorous, this native of southwest India has become something of a media darling — and not just because it’s delicious in your biryani. Turmeric’s purported healing powers have propelled this chubby, perennial rhizome into the limelight.
Turmeric owes its signature yellow hue to stores of curcumin, which also happens to be a potent anti-inflammatory. Reported benefits include preventing heart attacks in bypass patients, delaying the onset of diabetes, improving memory in Alzheimer’s patients, and reducing joint pain.
Ben Bebenroth is a believer. In the aftermath of four knee surgeries, the busy chef says he often relies on turmeric’s curcumin kick to manage his knee pain. “When I know I have a really big day coming up, I front-load with turmeric,” he says. “It’s an energy boost, a circulation boost, and an anti-inflammatory.”
Ben’s team planted nearly thirty pounds of the rhizome this spring on Spice Acres — more than enough to fuel his habit. The sizable crop is partly in response to the root’s new popularity as a health enhancer, but also in recognition of fresh turmeric’s intriguing culinary applications, especially its exotic, peppery flavor and its efficacy as a natural coloring agent.
Turmeric makes a great addition to any dish where some visual sizzle is desired. “Add it to a risotto or a couscous, and it gives you a beautiful orange pop, in a very organic way,” says the chef. “And in our restaurant’s bar program, we steep the plant’s leaves and stems in grain alcohol for 24 hours to make a really interesting bitters.” (Fresh turmeric, as you would expect, is both zestier and more brilliantly hued than the dried-and-powdered stuff in a jar. When working with the fresh root, peel the amount you wish to use, then grate or chop for best results. Just take care: That vibrant yellow color can be hard to remove from hands and cutting boards! Gloves aren’t a bad idea.)
Turmeric also pairs well with its cousin, ginger. To best enjoy that synergy, Ben suggests a freshly made juice of carrots, fresh turmeric, fresh ginger, freshly ground black pepper, and pineapple, as a palate-pleasing change from your usual routine.
Growing his own gives Ben access to another part of the plant’s interesting flavor profile: its leaves. Ben uses them to add mysterious flavor to an otherwise lightly cooked fish, or pep up plain and simple rice. “Mix a little bit of forbidden rice with a little bit of sweet jasmine rice, add some vanilla and honey, and tune it up with some mirin or lime for the acid,” he instructs. “Then form the rice into little bundles, wrap them up in turmeric leaves, and throw them into the steamer. The flavor is amazing.”
Freshly harvested turmeric will show up on restaurant menus in the fall. In the meantime, try this simple recipe for turmeric tea.
To one cup boiling water, add:
1/4 tsp. powdered turmeric
or 1 tsp. fresh-grated turmeric root
1/4 tsp. powered ginger
or 1 tsp. fresh-grated ginger root
1/2 tsp. honey
or to taste
If using powered spices, mix well, pour into a teacup, and enjoy.
If using fresh spices, allow to steep 3 minutes, then strain into a teacup.