Turmeric comes from the turmeric plant and is a member of the garlic family. It’s native to Southeast Asia and needs warm temperatures (68-86 degrees) to thrive. PBS, in its History Kitchen series, said researchers found evidence that turmeric goes back to 2,500 BCE.
Written records of turmeric use go back to ancient Mesopotamia. King Ashurbanipal of Assyria (668-633 BC) recorded, in a scroll, a long list of aromatic plants, including turmeric, according to the McCormick Science Institute’s “History of Spices.” King Merodach-baladan II (721-710 BC) of Babylonia kept records on how to cultivate herbs and spices, including turmeric.
In the book, Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects, authors Sahdeo Prasad and Bharat B. Aggarwal note that it most likely took hundreds of years for the spice to move from its southeast Asia origins. The authors believe turmeric reached China about 700 AD before moving on to East Africa (800 AD) and West Africa (1200 AD). By 1280, the explorer Marco Polo was raving about turmeric, and it finally reached the Caribbean (Jamaica) in the 18th century.
It’s yellow color made turmeric an excellent dye — it’s still used for that purpose today — but also widely used for medicinal purposes because users believe it has a number of health benefits.
Turmeric as a Food
Turmeric is the main spice in curry. Most recipes call for a very small amount because it’s a strong spice. The blog Serious Eats described turmeric like this:
It didn’t take me long to learn that good turmeric is out there. Great turmeric. Turmeric that, after a whiff, grabs your collar and won’t let go. Done right, it’s an ingredient that can change the way you cook ethnic food. The aroma is intense: earthy, pungent, redolent of dried citrus peel and dusty streets soaked in sunlight. The flavor, though subtler, warms the tongue, the missing link between black pepper and chile. After tasting the real deal, one automatically understands why the food of over a billion people is stained with it.
Bon Appetite says turmeric “is said to be one of the world’s healthiest foods,” and it can be found in a number of recipes. You can add turmeric to pretty much anything — coffee, a smoothie, soups, dressings, salad and of course, the aforementioned curry.
- Potato and pea curry with tomato and coriander (aloo dum)
- Turmeric Chicken
- Turmeric chicken and rice
- Turmeric rice bowl with root vegetables and chick peas
- Salmon with cucumber-yogurt sauce and carrot salad
Turmeric in Religious Ceremonies
Turmeric also has significant meaning in religious ceremonies.
Hindus across India use turmeric daily, according to Sciencing. Women apply turmeric to their skin to pay homage to the Goddess Durga, who has a yellow glow on her skin; the yellowing properties of turmeric can be used to dye clothes in respect to the Lord Krishna, who is depicted wearing yellow.
Turmeric, associated with prosperity and fertility, is often used during the haldi ceremonies at Hindu weddings. Sciencing described it this way:
The powder is mixed with water to form a paste and family members apply it to the bride and groom’s face and body. It signified the ritual purification of the new couple and serves as a blessing of fortune and prosperity. It is also intended to relax the bride and groom and dispel any nervousness.
Turmeric is a symbol of purity and prosperity in Buddhism and it is used in ceremonies to anoint sacred images.
Potential Health Benefits from Turmeric
Turmeric has, over the centuries, also been used as a health remedy. Turmeric, along with other spices, are mentioned in the medical writings of Charaka (1st century) one of the principal contributors to Ayurveda, a 5,000 year old medicinal and lifestyle system developed in ancient India (and still prevalent today); and Susruta II (2nd century), another Indian physician.
Historically, turmeric has been used as to treat ailments that range from the common, such as acne, the common cold and headaches, to the more severe and life threatening, including cancer, gallstones and liver disease.
A lengthy piece on the California College of Ayurveda noted a number of ways turmeric has historically been used in medicine. Milk boiled with turmeric and sugar was used as a cold remedy. Turmeric juice has been used to heal wounds, and the smoke from turmeric burned over charcoal used to relive scorpion sting bites.
Turmeric is used for arthritis, heartburn (dyspepsia), joint pain, stomach pain, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, bypass surgery, hemorrhage, diarrhea, intestinal gas, stomach bloating, loss of appetite, jaundice, liver problems, Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection, stomach ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gallbladder disorders, high cholesterol, a skin condition called lichen planus, skin inflammation from radiation treatment, and fatigue.
WebMD also noted that turmeric “could” be effective in treating high cholesterol, osteoarthritis and itching related to long-term kidney disease.
It’s also been touted as a way to improve skin and lose weight:
Bon Appetite even has a recipe for turmeric as a cough suppressant, and you can find turmeric in several supplements simply by doing a Google search.
But not everyone is sold on the potential health benefits. A research paper published in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry says there is no evidence curcumin — the active ingredient in turmeric — “has any specific therapeutic benefits, despite thousands of research papers and more than 120 clinical trials.”