Friday, January 27, 2012


I cannot imagine what the food world would smell like without the ginger family. We have met two members of the Zingiberaceae this week on the blog – galangal and cardamom. Today it is the turn of turmeric, and maybe in the future we will consider Grains of Paradise (melegueta pepper). There may be others too, that will have their brief blog-moment after I have indulged myself in a crash course in gingerology.

We must first consider the name. Let us just say that ‘the origin is obscure’, and the Oxford English Dictionary devotes a large paragraph to theorising about it. The OED seems to favour the idea that it comes from ‘modern Latin terra merita ‘deserving or deserved earth’, a name which the powder is said by Littré to have borne in commerce.’ 

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is ‘the aromatic and pungent root-stock of an East Indian plant’ and the powdered spice made from this root. In the way of all spices it has various medicinal qualities attributed to it. In particular it is of potential use in cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, and you can be sure I will be watching the research in those areas very intently. 

The plant is put to several more uses. Should you need a litmus test but find yourself without any of the standard paper strips, you can improvise with turmeric in water. Paper dipped in this mixture will turn from yellow to reddish brown in the presence of alkali. On a related note, turmeric is used as a dye (bright yellow, naturally). Experts say the dye is not particularly stable, and fades with time and sunlight. This is not my experience. I have several articles of clothing with reminders of curries past in the form of yellow blotches which have resisted all my laundering efforts – and I am a good laundress. 

Finally we come to its culinary use. It is most familiar to most of us as an ingredient in curry powder. I give you a nice example from the exciting early days of the British Empire.

To Make a Currey the Indian Way.
Take two small chickens, skin them and cut them as for a fricasey, wash them clean, and stew them in about a quart of water for about five minutes; then strain off the liquor and put the chickens in a clean dish; take three large onions, chop them small, and fry them in about two ounces of butter, then put in the chickens, and fry them together until they are brown, take a quarter of an ounce of turmerick, a large spoonful of ginger and beaten pepper together, and a little salt to your palate; strew all these ingredients over the chicken whilst frying, then pour in the liquor, and let it stew about half an hour, then put in a quarter of a pint of cream, and the juice of two lemons, and serve it up. The ginger, pepper, and turmerick must be beat very fine.
The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy (1784), by Hannah Glasse,

Quotation for the Day.
Eating highly seasoned food is unhealthful, because it stimulates too much, provokes the appetite too much, and often is indigestible.
Catharine E. Beecher, Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt-Book (1846)

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