If you possess a jar of turmeric powder in your spice rack, chances are it either came from, or passed through, Sangli. The Indian city in the western state of Maharashtra is renowned as Asia's - and perhaps the world's - largest and most important trading centre for one of the most versatile and widely used spices known to man. Turmeric not only adds flavour and colour to all kinds of foods, from curry to ice cream, but it's also used as a fabric dye, food additive, health remedy, cosmetic and as an application in religious ceremonies. And if your stash is called Rajapuri turmeric, then you're in luck - it is among the finest available from the world-famous six-metre-deep storage pits of Sangli.
Even the best turmeric is relatively cheap, which is why it is often used as a colouring agent instead of the vastly more expensive saffron. You'll be hard pressed to find a commercial curry powder that doesn't contain a hefty sprinkling of turmeric, which complements its distinctive yellow-brown shades with a slightly bitter, peppery flavour and a piquant mustard-like aroma. But despite its key role in curry, you're just as likely to find the yellow hue of turmeric in cakes, biscuits, cereals, cheese, yoghurt, sweets and even kulfi, or Indian milk ice cream.
In India, and many other parts of Asia, turmeric stands in capably for saffron as a fabric dye, giving saris and Buddhist monks' robes their rich yellow tones. Hindus use turmeric to make a red powder called kumkum, which is used to mark the forehead for a variety of social and religious occasions, such as visiting temples and offering blessings. It's probable that turmeric was initially used as a dye when it was first discovered more than 2,500 years ago, but the health properties have long been known in the East. The rest of the world is only just waking up to the fact that turmeric is a natural anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and antibacterial agent. But recent research has brought to light a host of health benefits. It is thought that turmeric can slow down the effects of Alzheimer's disease and multiple sclerosis, and remove liver toxins. And, of course, what spice would be worth its salt these days if it didn't double-up as a natural remedy for the common cold?
So, at the first sign of a sniffle, take a teaspoon of turmeric and add it to a quarter of a cup of milk. Mix it in well and simmer over a slow heat, allowing it to cool slightly before drinking. Any remaining turmeric can be heated in a ladle over a flame until it gives off a faint vapour - inhale this if you have a stuffy nose. It'll help you appreciate the aroma of your turmeric-laced lamb curry all the better.
Updated: October 15, 2008 04:00 AM