Marco Polo, on his epic travels to China and beyond, may have ‘discovered’ the vibrant, yellow-orange spice turmeric, but people had been using it in cooking, dyeing and medicine for a fairly long time before he showed up.
WHERE IS TURMERIC FROM?
The turmeric spice we know comes from the rhizomes, or underground stems, of the turmeric plant, Curcuma longa. The exact origin of the turmeric plant is unclear, but it mostly likely comes from South or Southeast Asia.
In 1280, on one of his travels, Marco Polo described the spice as having “all the properties of true saffron, as well as the smell and the color, and yet it is not really saffron.” It was then used as a inexpensive alternative to the pricey saffron.
Currently India is the largest producer and consumer of turmeric, but it is cultivated across South and Southeast Asia. I find it interesting that now with the domestication of turmeric, it is no longer found in the wild.
TRADITIONAL MEDICINAL USES
Traditional healers from India, China, Indonesia and many more have had knowledge of turmeric’s anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, antioxidant and antiseptic properties for around 4500 years. In an Indian Ayurvedic text from 250BCE, an ointment containing turmeric was recommended to alleviate the affects of food poisoning.
Turmeric fumes were inhaled to alleviate coughs and asthma; swallowed to treat dysentery, diarrhea and liver diseases; and rubbed as a paste on the skin to treat chickenpox, boils, and heal wounds and bruises. And that’s just a small sampling of the uses to which it was put. It’s no wonder that one of the names for turmeric was jayanti, meaning “one who is victorious over diseases.”
MODERN MEDICINAL USES
The key active compound, and the pigment that gives turmeric its vibrant yellow coloring, is curcumin. More recently the scientific community has been investigating curcumin’s healing properties in drug trials. There have been at least 57 studies done involving curcumin conducted since 2001.
These studies ranged from the effects of curcumin on exercise performance, to treating cystic fibrosis, to the effect of curcumin on dermatitis caused by radiation therapy, and more. Curcumin’s non-toxic properties are also being investigated in cancer research.
In another study on the effects of curcumin on patients suffering rheumatoid arthritis, patients given the curcumin showed more improvement than those on the theraputic drug, diclofenac. Those on both curcumin and diclofenac showed less adverse side affects, indicating that curcumin can even protect the lining of the stomach from the harsh side effects of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
USES IN FOOD
Adding black pepper along with turmeric to your food can boosts the levels of curcumin absorption into the bloodstream, which may enhance the benefits of turmeric. Which is great if you use a lot of curry powder, as two of the main ingredients are turmeric and black pepper!
While not everyone agrees as to the amazing curative properties of turmeric, it’s not going to do you any harm to add it to your food. Along with cayenne pepper, I add a little turmeric to my eggs in the morning. When I’m making a veggie bake with béchamel sauce, I toss in a little turmeric to add color and flavour. Also, a good healthy dollop adds flavour and color to hummus too.
Let me know how you use turmeric in your food.