x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 February 2018

Superfood focus: Healthy properties give turmeric a golden touch

In the first of a four-part series on the uses and benefits of superfoods, we look at the healthy effects of the spice.

Turmeric, which was once considered as an alternative to saffron, is mainly used in Indian and South Asian dishes. Getty Images
Turmeric, which was once considered as an alternative to saffron, is mainly used in Indian and South Asian dishes. Getty Images

The term “superfood” is increasingly controversial, with certain ingredients taking on near-mythological qualities as their purported list of health benefits continues to grow.

While it is certainly worth approaching the idea with a degree of common sense and caution, there are undoubtedly some foods – super or otherwise – that really do us good.

What is turmeric?

The vibrant yellow-orange spice is related to the ginger family and derived from turmeric root, which is found at the stem of the curcuma longa plant.

Turmeric has a vaguely peppery, slightly astringent, ultimately warming taste. It is commonly used in Indian and South Asian cooking to add colour and flavour. While in the past it has been dismissed as the poor man’s alternative to saffron, its increased popularity as a healthy ingredient means turmeric can now confidently claim a prominent role in any discerning spice rack.

Health benefits

That is not to say that its health-giving properties are newly discovered. In many eastern cultures, turmeric has long been revered for its medicinal properties, and it plays an important role in Ayurvedic medicine.

Yet it is only relatively recently that these health benefits have made their way into the mainstream, helped along by foodies and Instargrammers on the lookout for the next hot trend.

So does this unassuming spice live up to the hype? In short, yes. The benefits are primarily due to curcumin, the active compound in turmeric that is not only responsible for its bright hue, but also a powerful antioxidant with anti-inflammatory and antibacterial qualities.

In the most basic of terms, this means that consuming turmeric can help with a number of ailments, including indigestion, and reduce swelling and ease inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.

There is also research to suggest that turmeric can help to fight Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and guard against heart disease.

How to use it

Many of us probably already have a half-empty jar of turmeric lurking in our kitchen cupboards. We might also be familiar with adding it to our spice mixes destined for curries, stirring it into tagines and using it to flavour rice dishes.

If you want to increase your turmeric-infused cooking repertoire further, there are plenty of options. To fully embrace the ingredient in all its trendy glory, forget about the idea that the “flat white” coffee is the hippest hot drink of the moment – golden milk (also known as a turmeric latte or turmeric tea) is where it is at.

To make your own, heat a cup of water or milk (you can use regular cow’s milk, or almond, soy or coconut) with half a teaspoon ground turmeric, quarter of a teaspoon of ground black pepper, a cinnamon stick and half a teaspoon of coconut oil. Bring the mixture almost to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes. Strain and serve.

Other easy ways to get more turmeric in your diet include: adding it to hummus (stir a sprinkling into shop-bought or homemade varieties); dredging cubes of halloumi in the spice before frying or grilling; adding it to breadcrumbs intended for coating meat or fish; and experimenting with turmeric and coconut popcorn (pop the corn in coconut oil, then sprinkle with turmeric and plenty of black pepper while still warm).

Top tips

Fresh turmeric root is difficult to find in the UAE, but if you do buy some, use it in a similar way to ginger: finely grate and add to marinades, slice into matchsticks and stir through dressings and dipping sauces or pop in the blender when you’re preparing your morning juice.

Research suggests that when turmeric and black pepper are consumed together, the body’s ability to absorb the all- important curcumin increases significantly. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that these two ingredients taste rather good together, too. Be warned, though, that turmeric does have an uncanny ability to indelibly mark just about any and every surface it comes into contact with – from hands and clothes to kitchen surfaces – so use it with care and wear gloves.

Next week on superfood focus, we look at the qualities of chia seeds

artslife@thenational.ae