The memories I have of turmeric are powerful and indelible. One of the earliest is as a boy growing up in New Delhi, India. I loved birds—so much so that whenever I came across a fallen sparrow, or finch, or hummingbird, I would bring it home and take care of it, to help heal it. One of the first things I would do is bathe it in a turmeric bath. Turmeric, I was told, would disinfect external wounds while also cleansing what was ailing it on the inside. I’d nurse the bird, keep it in a cage for a few days, feed it, even pet it if it allowed me that luxury. Once it was fine and able, I would release it to the world. I never questioned turmeric’s powers.
Another memory is of my sister’s wedding in 1993, the year she and I both left India to live abroad and ultimately travel the world. On the day of her marriage, my aunts and female cousins came to massage her with a turmeric paste. They sang songs of blessing, of fertility, and of good luck as they rubbed her body with the golden dye. Making the image even more vivid is that she was dressed in a turmeric-yellow sari, and four aunts and cousins held a turmeric-hued dupatta (shawl) over her as a way of creating a blessed canopy while she moved into the next phase of her life.
In India, we are keenly aware of the healing and transformative powers of turmeric, as well as its culinary potency. For those reasons, we consider it the mother of all herbs. That’s why it’s used in about 90 percent of Indian dishes, and also throughout southeast Asia.
Turmeric’s acrid flavor is not the most convincing reason to bring it into your diet. It’s how it works in tandem with its other attributes—the healing properties and saffronlike color—that is appealing to us, and has been for thousands of years. For just this reason, the herb exists in our food even when we can hardly taste it, and is one of the main ingredients of curries, adding both color and earthiness to its flavor. A little bit of it goes a long way, so we always cook it down so that its somewhat bitter taste can be muted.
Bitter is not a bad thing, though; Indians love the pungent flavor of bitter. Hot, salty, sour, sweet, and bitter are our food’s key flavor ingredients, and turmeric fulfills the latter. When powdered turmeric isn’t at hand, we use raw turmeric rhizomes, sliced and cooked in a dish for hours before the root slices are discarded. Cooking with it raw adds a more aggressive flavor, so a pinch or two of turmeric powder is preferred, especially because it is plentiful and inexpensive (specifically as it relates to saffron, which imparts a similar golden color and much more complex taste—at a much higher price).
When cooking with turmeric, I do what has been done throughout the ages: Indian cooks begin by sautéing the oil and herbs for about 2 to 3 minutes, which allows the herbs’ essential oils, or flavor, to be fully released. That’s when we add a bit of flour, then vegetables, and so forth. No French or Italian cook would ever do that; they always add herbs at the middle or end of the cooking process. And that’s what truly makes our cooking unique.