Several of my non-Indian friends really like eating Indian food. But mostly it’s the take-out aloo gobhi, chicken tikka masala or saag paneer that satisfy their weekly curry cravings. Many of them would LIKE to cook daal and chole at home, but the long list of spices and ingredients make it a little difficult for beginners. Personally, I don’t think the lists are that complicated once you get the hang of basic flavor combinations, but if you are not used to cooking with much more than salt and pepper, and feel that you are never going to end up using ALL those packets of spices, you can easily talk yourself into ordering greasy, gloopy, everything-looks-the-same take-out. So, I thought I would occasionally write a post about some of the Indian spices that I use very often.
Let’s start with turmeric or haldi, in Hindi. Turmeric is what gives Indian food that bright yellow color. It has a very pungent taste and aroma, so a little goes a long way. Sometimes I come across recipes that call for a tablespoon of turmeric in a dish meant to serve 4 people and that’s WAY MORE than you really need. Too much turmeric can easily overpower the look and taste of any dish and make it bitter, so use it sparingly.
Turmeric is mainly used in its powdered form, as shown in the photo above. You can buy it pre-ground or buy the dried rhizome (rootstalk that looks a lot like ginger) and grind it on your own, like many people in India do. One can also use fresh turmeric, again in the same way as ginger.
Spices are not restricted to just kitchens and cooking in India. They permeate the entire culture in fascinating ways and turmeric is an excellent example. It has excellent medicinal properties, rich in antioxidant curcumin and is now being researched for its potential cancer-prevention and treatment properties. Countless Indian children are made to drink turmeric flavored milk by their moms and grandmoms, often against their wishes, when they get sore throats or body aches or bruise their knees and elbows while playing etc.
It’s also considered excellent for the skin. In fact, haldi ceremony is a very important part of many Indian weddings – women in the family apply ubtan, a paste made from turmeric, oil etc., to the face, arms and feet of the bride/bridegroom while singing folk songs. It’s a cultural thing now, but I am sure it started out as an ancient bridal beauty treatment!
Haldi is also used to make rangoli (a decorative design made on the floors of courtyards and entrances in Indian homes) and as a natural color to smear people with on the festival of Holi. It’s everywhere, really!
So, that’s turmeric for you!
P.S. Oh, I just remembered…turmeric is also a natural ant-repellent. A few months back, a steady stream of red ants was coming into my apartment through a small gap in the window. I blocked their entry with a thin sprinkling of turmeric and it worked like a charm! Something to keep in mind.