One chef-friend told me this, then another. By the time a third strongly suggested the same thing, I was on my way to the mercado. I ran into yet a fourth chef-friend, visiting from Vancouver, who also encouraged me to get the real thing.
“It makes a huge difference,” he said. “You’ll never use powdered again.”
It was turmeric we were talking about, (cúrcuma in Spanish) an essential Indian spice used by billions of people all over the world. If, like me, you’ve only cooked with the powdered version, you’re in for a delightful surprise.
For many of us, turmeric’s only use has been in its powdered form, to add an earthy ochre color to dahls, soups and curries. Fresh turmeric, though, drastically changes the flavor landscape, adding a rich, bright complexity — especially when paired with coconut milk — and helps balance spicier seasonings.
Turmeric’s flavor also works in egg dishes, marinades for chicken, pork and beef, hot cereals and bean dishes. It elevates a basic like chicken noodle soup or Basmati or brown rice to something memorable. It makes a delicious, pretty and nutritionally advantageous tea or hot drink.
“Golden milk” (haldi doodh in Hindi) is a traditional Indian drink recently “adopted” by health food aficionados due to turmeric’s ability to increase antioxidants and build up the immune system. Many people drink the tea every day or take it in capsule form. Basically warm sweetened milk with turmeric, it can include black pepper, fresh ginger, black tea and cardamon too. I’ve included a recipe here, but feel free to adjust the ingredients to your taste.
Fresh turmeric rhizomes are easily and inexpensively available in Mexico. Like ginger, the plant flourishes here.
The “fingers” are straighter, smaller and thinner than ginger, and under the thin skin, the flesh is bright carrot-orange — which immediately stains anything it comes in contact with. Chefs strongly suggest using disposable latex gloves and considering carefully what cutting boards and implements you use when cooking with fresh turmeric. Like fresh ginger root, turmeric fingers can be frozen and then grated when needed.
Please take the warning about turmeric staining seriously; if you think beets are bad, fresh turmeric is even worse. Skin, fabric, wood, light-colored silicone spatulas (sigh) … all will turn orange. Use latex gloves or plastic bags over your hands. Some say scrubbing your skin with sugar will help remove the stains, but I’ll go with gloves!
- ¼ cup water
- ½-inch piece fresh turmeric, grated OR ½ tsp. dried turmeric
- 1½ -inch piece fresh ginger, grated
- 1 cardamom pod
- 1 (2-inch) cinnamon stick
- 3 black peppercorns
- ½ Tbsp. honey
- 1 cup milk (dairy, coconut or nut)
- 1 black tea bag
Place water, turmeric, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, peppercorns and honey in small pan over low heat. Bring to simmer; add milk and teabag. When milk is steaming, add more honey if desired. Pour through a fine-mesh strainer into a cup.
Crunchy Turmeric Chickpeas
- 1 (15-ounce) can, drained OR 2 cups dried chickpeas soaked overnight, drained
- 2 Tbsp. olive oil
- 1-inch piece fresh turmeric, grated, OR ½ tsp. turmeric
- 1-inch piece fresh ginger, grated
- ¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
In large skillet, heat oil over medium-high. Add turmeric, ginger and black pepper, stir and cook 1 minute. Add chickpeas. Continue cooking, stirring to coat in spices and oil, until chickpeas are crispy and golden on edges. Season well with salt. Serve immediately.
Turmeric Fried Eggs with Kale, Yogurt & Bacon
- 4 slices cooked bacon
- 1 bunch curly kale, ribs and stems removed, leaves torn into large pieces
- 5 Tbsp. olive oil, divided
- 1 cup plain Greek yogurt
- 4 eggs
- ½-inch piece fresh turmeric, grated OR ½ tsp. dried turmeric
- For serving: red pepper flakes, lime wedges
Preheat oven to 375 F (190 C). Spread kale on baking sheet. Drizzle with 2 Tbsp. oil, massage into leaves and season with salt. Bake 5–7 minutes, tossing halfway through, until lightly browned around edges and crisp-tender.
Season yogurt with salt. Divide among plates. Top with the bacon and kale.
Heat remaining 3 Tbsp. oil in nonstick skillet over medium-high. Add eggs one at a time, gently shaking skillet to keep them from sticking together. Tilting skillet toward you, spoon oil over egg whites, cooking until set. Remove from heat, keeping skillet tilted.
Add turmeric to oil and gently baste eggs. Divide eggs among plates; drizzle with remaining oil and lime juice, sprinkle with red pepper flakes and serve.
Grilled Pork Chops with Pineapple-Turmeric Glaze
- ½ cup pineapple juice
- ¼ cup honey
- ¼ cup rice vinegar
- 3 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
- 1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
- ½ tsp. toasted sesame oil
- ½ tsp. ground turmeric
- Four (1-inch-thick) bone-in pork chops
Heat grill; oil grate. Bring pineapple juice, honey, vinegar, mustard, red pepper, sesame oil and turmeric to simmer in small saucepan over medium heat. Stir until reduced to ¾ cup, 10–15 minutes. Cool. Set aside half of sauce for serving.
Season pork with salt. Grill over direct heat until browned all over, about 3 minutes per side. Continue grilling, turning and basting with the sauce until it’s charred and coated with a thick layer of glaze, about 4 minutes.
Check internal temperature of pork. If needed, continue grilling. Let chops rest 10 minutes before slicing. Serve with reserved sauce.
Creamy Turmeric Pasta
- ½ lb. spaghetti, fettucine or capellini
- 1Tbsp. butter
- 1 large shallot OR ½ large onion, thinly sliced
- 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- Salt and pepper
- 1 tsp. ground turmeric
- ½ cup half-and-half
- 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan, plus more for serving
- 2 Tbsp. minced fresh parsley/chives
Cook pasta according to package instructions. Drain, reserving about ½ cup pasta cooking water.
Melt butter in large saucepan over medium heat. Add shallot/onion, garlic, salt and pepper; cook, stirring, until golden-brown, 3–4 minutes.
Add turmeric; stir to toast, about 30 seconds. Slowly whisk in half-and-half. Bring to a simmer. Whisk in 1 cup Parmesan.
Add pasta and reserved pasta cooking water. Toss to coat; sprinkle with fresh herbs. Serve immediately.
Janet Blaser is the author of the best-selling book, Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats, featured on CNBC and MarketWatch. She has lived in Mexico since 2006. You can find her on Facebook.