Botanical Name: Curcuma longa
Common Names: Turmeric, Indian Saffron, Madras Turmeric, Curcuma
Origin: India and South East Asia
Description: Turmeric is an attractive perennial herb that grows from knotty, branched, yellow-orange, underground rhizomes. The plant grows to about 1 metre tall with green, tropical, strappy leaves and beautiful, tall, white flower spikes. Plants are usually evergreen, but in cold areas the leaves may die back in winter and re-emerge in spring.
Two related plants that I also grow in my garden are Turmeric Temulawak, Curcuma xanthorrhiza, and Black Turmeric, Curcuma caesia.
Cultivation: Turmeric is a tropical and sub-tropical plant that grows best in under-storey or lightly shaded positions in rich, free-draining, moist soil. It is both frost and drought tender, but the clump will usually re-shoot in spring if the damaged leaves are cut back after a cold winter. It’s also suitable to grow in a large pot which can be moved to a warmer spot in winter. Clumps of Turmeric need to be divided and fresh rhizomes planted every 3 to 4 years to keep them productive.
Harvesting of the edible rhizomes is best commenced 9 to 10 months after planting when the lower leaves turn yellow. Small tender rhizomes can be “bandicooted” all year round as needed from under the soil at the sides of the plant. This will leave the rest of the clump to continue to grow. Overwinter Turmeric by reducing water as temperatures drop. Alternatively, the whole plant can be lifted and harvested in autumn and a few of the healthiest rhizomes can be detached, air-dried, stored and replanted the next spring.
Propagation: Turmeric grows from small rhizome setts planted 30 cm apart in spring. These can easily be divided from an existing clump or purchased from a nursery. Fresh Turmeric rhizomes can also be purchased from an organic store or Asian grocer and then broken into sections, each with at least one growing bud and planted about 7 cm deep.
Flavour Profile: Woody, floral and bitter. The major flavour compound is Turmerone.
Culinary Uses: The ground edible rhizomes of Turmeric are commonly used as the principle ingredient in curry powder. In the kitchen, rhizomes can be stored in the refrigerator for a few weeks or in the freezer for several months. They can be stored whole and grated while still frozen, or peeled, sliced and stored in a sealed container.
Turmeric partners well with white fish, lamb and pork as a rub before grilling, or tossed with vegetables such as cauliflower and pumpkin before roasting. Thin slices are also often included in vegetable pickles. Popular in many Asian dishes, Turmeric is a spice that provides a mild, spicy, earthy aroma, bitter, mustard-like flavour, and rich golden-yellow colour.
Rhizomes can be used fresh or boiled, dried and ground into a powder, however, the complex flavours are more prominent when raw. The curcumin colour from the rhizome is a less expensive replacement for saffron and is often used to colour mustards, pickles, relishes, sauerkraut, broths, salad dressings, eggs, cheese, cakes, savoury dishes and rice. Turmeric milk (turmeric latte or golden milk) is a hot drink made using dairy, coconut or nut milk.
The leaves, young shoots and flowers are also edible. The young shoots and flowers are used in Thai cuisines, while the leaves are used to flavour fish in Indonesia and to wrap food before cooking.
Nutrition: Turmeric is reputed to have wide-ranging health properties and has been used extensively in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. It contains more than 300 naturally occurring components including beta-carotene, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), calcium, flavonoids, iron, niacin, potassium, zinc and phytochemicals including curcumin.
Research suggests that it contains strong anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and that the curcumin has significant health benefits.
Other Uses: Turmeric can be used as a yarn or textile dye for natural fabrics such as cheesecloth, cotton, linen and silk. Turmeric or curcuma paper is used as an indicator for acidity or alkalinity and is made by steeping paper in a tincture of turmeric and then dried. The paper will be yellow in acidic and neutral conditions and turns red-brown in alkaline conditions.