Indian Ginger

A tropical perennial, turmeric is a member of the ginger family and, like ginger, the spice comes from the underground rhizomes of the plant. It is native to India, and today, India is by far the largest producer and exporter, but it is also grown widely in Asia, notably in Indonesia, and in South America and the Caribbean. There are two main types of ground turmeric: Madras and Alleppey. Madras turmeric is primarily grown in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu but gets its name from the fact that it has historically been traded in its capital city of Madras, now called Chennai. Alleppey turmeric comes from Kerala, and its name derives from the Alleppey District near Cochin.

Turmeric rhizomes are rounder than those of ginger, and they are bright orange inside. To harvest them, whole clumps of the rhizomes are carefully removed from the earth and then the smaller rhizomes, called “fingers” (see Ginger) are broken off from the larger rhizomes and boiled or steamed. This step helps shorten the drying time and prevents the small rhizomes from sprouting. Then they are dried and polished, removing the skin in the process, before they are ground. The dried rhizomes are rock-hard, so commercial grinding is really a necessity.

Most of the ground turmeric we see is Madras turmeric, and it is bright yellow to orange; Alleppey turmeric, which is darker in color, is considered of higher quality. Both lend color to any dish to which they are added (or to your hands, or cutting board, or clothes—turmeric has been used as a natural dye throughout its long history). The aroma of Madras turmeric is musty and warm, with a slightly bitter undertone; Alleppey is more fragrant and distinctly earthy. Both have a pungent, bitter taste. Marco Polo compared turmeric to saffron, and it is sometimes suggested as a substitute in recipes, but the two spices have nothing in common other than their bright color.

Turmeric is an essential ingredient in Indian curries, and it seasons a vast range of regional dishes throughout the country. It pairs well with vegetables such as cauliflower, celery, and potatoes, as well as with lentils, rice, and noodles, and it complements both seafood and poultry. It is added to chutneys, and because it is a preservative, it is used in many pickles. Turmeric is also found in the kitchens of Nepal, South Asia, Morocco, and the Middle East. It is an ingredient in most curry powders and in many tandoori spice blends and often in charmoula, as well as in Morocco’s ras el hanout. Turmeric is widely used as a coloring agent in the food industry, in foods from mustard to cheese.