Yellow and almost as essential as the sun, turmeric is the soul of every South Asian pantry. We love our haldi (turmeric), and even the immigrant second-generation South Asian kids know the status of haldi in a desi kitchen, and that says a lot.
What is haldi, and why do we love it so?
Haldi has been a popular and much-loved ingredient of the subcontinent for over 4,500 years, and though it has picked up steam in the West recently, being termed the ‘miracle spice’, Easterners have known and appreciated its magic for eons, hence no surprise here.
Turmeric is a power herb not only for adding flavour and colour to curries but also for fighting disease
Analyses of utensils found near eastern Punjab uncovered residue from turmeric dating back almost 4,500 years. It was around 500 BCE, the later Vedic period, when turmeric took the stage as an integral ingredient of the ancient practice of medicine called Ayurvedic.
Inhaling fumes from burning turmeric was said to alleviate congestion; turmeric juice aided with the healing of wounds and bruises; and turmeric paste was applied to all sorts of skin conditions, from smallpox and chickenpox to blemishes and shingles. Ayurvedic literature contains over 100 different terms for turmeric, including jayanti, meaning ‘one who is victorious over diseases,’ and matrimanika, meaning ‘as beautiful as moonlight.’ It is said that the long-term use of haldi prevents one from the onset of Alzheimer’s. How scientifically true or proven that is, is yet to be determined, but statistics say that the occurrence of Alzheimer’s in the subcontinent is not as rampant as it is in some parts of the Western world.
We South Asians use at least a chutki (pinch) of haldi in almost everything we cook, from vegetables, daal (lentils), grains, snacks to all meats curries and kebabs. However, the exact amount of haldi we use is an instinctively cultural thing. Call me a haldi snob — and you may — but truth be told, the yellow spice condiment necessary to make desi curries is easy to procure but the delicate nuances of haldi in desi cookery is best understood in the term ‘andaaza’ (approximation), and exercised to perfection in the desi kitchen by moms and khansamas (cooks).
Ancient texts on haldi talk about its vibrant, sunny hues and its importance in being used as a dye. This ability of the turmeric root gave it a reputation in the use of cultural rituals, medicine, magic and cookery. While Muslims of the subcontinent consider it magic in cooking, rituals and medicine, the Hindus also consider it to be an auspicious spice. Women of Southeast Asia, especially brides, apply turmeric paste as a beauty enhancer. The ubtan/mayoon and haldi ceremony leads to the wedding, and the yellow hues of turmeric play a vital role at the bridal shower, where the entire ambience of the occasion is yellow, to mark the cultural magic of haldi.
What does turmeric taste like?
Turmeric has a pungent, earthy odour. Its flavour is described as a little bitter, a little peppery like mustard or horseradish, with a slight ginger flavour. It’s most often used for colouring, more so than for the flavour. If you leave it out of a recipe, you may not notice much change in flavour, but the dish won’t be as pretty as desired.
Today I’m sharing a miracle drink recipe, a remedy for everything except a broken heart. Have it often enough and you’ll see a difference in immunity, digestion, minor aches and pains and overall health. It’s ancient and sunny as sunshine; here it is from my kitchen to yours.
TURMERIC IN MILK DRINK
1 cup milk (almond, coconut or dairy)
1 tsp honey
1/4 tsp of ground turmeric
Pinch of grated ginger
1 small stick of cinnamon
Freshly ground black pepper
In a small saucepan, gently heat milk of your choice with the honey. Bring to almost boiling point and remove from heat.
Add spices. Sprinkle freshly ground pepper, stir cinnamon and cardamom and serve.
The writer is a freelance journalist, and author of Feast with a Taste of Amir Khusro
Published in Dawn, EOS, April 14th, 2019