Sunday, December 30, 2007

Blog Party: Kitchen Spices- Turmeric, Haridra, Curcurma Longa

This month's blog party is on Kitchen Spices, and their medicinal uses (or otherwise uses). The kitchen pantry is FULL of useful medicines that we use to make our food taste delicious every day. Cinnamon, cloves, sage, thyme, garlic, onions, ginger and honey are all extremely useful herbs that most people keep in their pantry at any time. If you are a fan of Indian food, you probably have curry powder on the spice rack as well. The spice/herb I'm going to explore in this post is an ingredient in curry powders. Turmeric, the bright yellow powder that gives curry its color, among other things.
I know, not everyone keeps turmeric on their spice shelf, but it's been talked about
an awful lot these days, and is quickly becoming a "fad" herb sold in encapsulated CO2 extracts with standardization to a percentage of curcumoids. What is all the big fuss about turmeric?

Turmeric is a SPICE and a food, and there is no real reason why you should need to buy it in fancy softgels for $30 a box. Instead go to the bulk spices and fill a bag with the bright yellow powder and begin to use it. Cook with it, tincture it, stir it in hot water for tea, mix with honey as a paste, or add it to other powders and clay as a poultice.

Turmeric has been used in Ayurveda and by Indian chefs for thousands of years, known as Haridra. Closely related to ginger (zinzigber officinalis), most people buy it as a powder in the spice asile. But you can buy whole pieces of root in asian markets, or whole food co-ops and the like, usually in the produce section, next to the ginger. You might even mistake the turmeric for ginger. It looks remarkably similar, but the bright orange yellow color of the meat is unique. The roots are also slightly smaller and thinner than those of ginger.

Either way you buy it, its uses are myriad.

I love turmeric stirred into the cooking water with rice (just a 1/2 tsp or so) will color rice a brillant shade of yellow, and add a nice savory and aromatic quality to the rice. Turmeric is less pungent than its cousin ginger, even fresh. And it is full of antioxidants.
Yup, those highly touted antioxidants, scavenging free radicals and putting out the fires of inflammation all over the body. That bright yellow color from carotenoids and Vit A is good for the eyes and general antioxidant protection.

Used in cooking it adds color and flavor, but is also a useful digestive stimulant and chologouge. It gently warms the digestive system, and through slight bitter and pungent flavors increases secretion of digestive fluids ( be careful if you have an ulcer, like other spicy foods it can aggravate it in some people.), and stimulates the production and secretion of bile, which is extremely important in the digestion of fats in the diet. If you have trouble digesting fats (often characterized by smelly, soft stools and gas known as steatorrhea, or nausea after eating fats) try a little turmeric stirred into your food, or as a warm tea before (or after) meals. Just a teaspoon stirred into warm water with a spoon of honey is a pleasant digestive stimulating tea. Or just have a small portion of rice cooked with turmeric, or a spoon stirred into your soup broth.

Here's a nice simple recipie for your digestive pleasure.
1 c rice
2 c water
1 tbsp ghee
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp salt

Melt ghee in a pan, and stir in the spices and heat until just fragrant, (try not to burn them. Not nearly as tasty.)
Stir the rice into the sizzling ghee and spices and toast slightly ( some kernals may turn golden brown and it may smell a bit like popcorn.)
Add the water and stir the whole mixture once or twice to mix. Cover with a lid, and turn the heat to low. Cook the rice with the lid on until the water is absorbed. White rice will take 20 min, and brown rice will take 45-50 min.

Turn the heat off and leave the lid on for another 10 min. Just before serving, fold the seeds back into the rice with a spatula. Don't stir too much, or the rice may stick or become gluey. Just enough to mix the seeds into the rice. Serve hot.

Another one of turmeric's wonderful healing properties is its affinity for the liver, both a gentle liver stimulant and detoxifier. It stimulates liver production of glutathione, the body's natural liver antioxidant and protectant. You can use turmeric any time there is sluggishness in the liver, or when undergoing mild alterative therapies to restore normal elimination and detoxifying processes. Turmeric is a blood mover and can help release sluggish, backed up blood in the liver or liver chi stagnation. This can be of benefit in a whole host of conditions relating to stuck liver chi or sluggish liver function, including PMS and menstrual cramps, poor digestion and constipation, heat in the core with cold/hands and feet, bloating, emotional explosiveness, and hot/full headaches from stuck chi.
In fact, one of my most effective teas for addressing menstrual cramps consists of antispasmodics and blood movers.

Menstrual Cramp Tea
2 tbsp Wild yam root,
2-3 slices red peony root,
1 tsp turmeric root powder
1 tsp ginger root
sometimes with a touch of wood betony.

It makes a very strange looking bright yellow tea, but served warm with honey and lemon, I find it quite pleasant, and very effective in addressing monthly cramping. (Always worse with the consumption of gluten. Damn those holiday temptations!)

Turmeric is also considered highly hepatoprotective and can be used for those with liver disease like jaundice, hepatitis and mild chirrosis. Obviously underlying causes need addressing, but used with other hepatoprotective herbs and therapies ( milk thistle, schizandra, reishi, selenium ) it can be of great benefit, espeically if there is inflammation anywhere in the system going on as well.

As a blood mover and antiinflammatory, turmeric can be used externally as well for bruises, sprains, arthritis and injuries. Either a poultice or linament used externally can alleviate pain and inflammation. Use it internally as well to address the injury both inside and out. But do be aware it will dye the skin (or any cloth)bright yellow for a few days. (Well, your cloth may stay yellow forever, but it will wash off the skin. Hey, think of it like a new yellow henna! Paint pretty flowers around your sprained ankle and messages of positive healing.) Additionally, turmeric is used topically on the skin for infections and infestations. One study showed it effective in combination with neem leaves as a poultice for scabies. But used in salve it is effective for any inflammed and infected wound. I've not tried it for fungal infections like athletes foot or ringworm, but imagine it might be useful. Also useful for inflammatory skin conditions like eczema, but again, it will turn the skin bright yellow.

Turmeric is also a nice immune stimulant and anti-infective herb to use during cold and flu season. Another reason to cook with it, or add it your favorite immune formula. I know one herbalist who uses turmeric in her fire cider recipie. (I usually use ginger.) Especially if you need a diaphoretic stimulant during cold or flu, a nice hot brew of turmeric and ginger tea will do the job nicely.

Finally, the use to which commerce is latching on to. It is a superb antiinflammatory. Turmeric is being sold in capsules to address the pain and inflammation of arthritis, prostatitis and heart disease. This is where the CO2 extracts are being sold as a bargin at 4-5 times the price of the spice on the shelf. For most people the powdered spice or a tincture of the fresh root will do just the same thing, but you will need to take it in fairly large quantities.

Most of the capsules for sale are now standarized to curcuminoids, and frankly, even though turmeric is well studied by science, I hate to reduce the healing properties of a such a versatile food herb to just ONE compound. The curcuminoids have many studies showing their effectiveness in controlling inflammatory processes, but turmeric has a lot more to offer than just anti-inflammatory curcuminoids. Rich antioxidants, hepatoprotective properties, improving digestive function, and supporting immune function are probably all things we want to embrace, along with quenching the fires of inflammation.

But, with any inflammation in the body, one must get to the root of it. Why is the body inflammed? Is there a food intolerance, leaky gut, not enough omega 3 fatty acids to regulate inflammation from within? You can certainly use turmeric to slow that process down, to relieve pain, and help someone off NSAID's or other antiinflammatory drugs like corticosteroids, cortisone or prednisone with a whole slew of dangerous side effects, but if the root is not addressed, the inflammation will continue and the health will continue to degrade.
Turmeric, in the marketplace is being used a band-aid, or like any other pharmacuetical to stop pain and inflammation without addressing the reason for inflammation and pain. Turmeric is incredibly useful when addressing injuries and chronic inflammation, but use it with a grain of salt. One must also remember that inflammation is actually a helpful process used by the body as part of the healing process. We run into a problem when the inflammation never stops, because the root hasn't been addressed.

Turmeric has also shown promise in the treatment of the many symptoms of metabolic syndrome, or syndrome x. Through its antioxidant, antiinflammatory and liver and digestive stimulating properities, it helps to adddress the inflammatory state of the body that can lead to oxidation of the plaque on the arteries or cholesterol in the blood, leading to heart attack or stroke, and can aid in maintaing blood sugar control. In addition to major dietary changes, and supplementation of important nutrients to control insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia leading to cardiovascular disease and diabetes, turmeric, and other helpful herbs can be added to the regimen to address these aspects of Metabolic syndrome.

In Ayurveda turmeric is known as a supreme blood purifier and nourishes and builds the blood and ojas, it can be of benefit for women's reproductive health and menstrual problems, and for men in supporting healthy semen. It is used extensively as a skin tonic. Vasant Lad (Ayurveda, the Science of Self Healing)suggests its use topically mixed with aloe vera gel for burns, herpes or cold sores, and other skin afflictions. Women in India often stain their skin with Turmeric as a beauty aid.

In Ayurveda turmeric is traditionally administered in a warm milk decoction, mixed with ghee or honey, or as a paste applied to the skin. Because the powder is so easy to come by, most people will just use the powder. But I have made a fresh tincture from the fresh whole roots of turmeric and find it to be sweet, resinous, and delicious and effective. If you find whole fresh roots and want to tincture it, go ahead, just be careful, it will stain your hands, your cutting board and your muslin you strain it with, and anything you spill it on!

I know there a million more ways and reasons to use turmeric as a spice and a medicine, but this post has gone on long enough. Enjoy!


Lauren Elizabeth said...

Wow, I love your blog because it full of information. I own and operate a spice rack company, so I am always looking for interesting info on spices. I think that spices are making a comeback as people learn about all of their health benefits. Who needs trans fats for taste?

Check out SpiceStack at

Kiva Rose said...

Nice post, Darcey! Very thorough and rooted in personal experience. I'll email you soon.

~Dreamseeds~ said...

Darcey, wonderful article. Thank you

Orla Hegarty said...

Great post and great blog.

I have found my totem animal thx to your graphic too. It hit me like a brick when I clicked on your page.

You might like this post about turmeric on my blog ;)


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