Turmeric – the original super-spice

November 7, 2015 3:11 pm

It aids digestion, is great for post-workout recovery and can help to fight cancer. Are we talking about the latest hipster superfood, exclusively grown by small tribes at the at the foot of the Andes? No, we’re talking about something you may already be eating – we’re talking about turmeric.

Turmeric has been a staple of cuisine on the Indian sub-continent since 3000 B.C, so it is no surprise that India accounts for 80% of world turmeric production.

Growing up to a metre tall and with pinkish blooms, turmeric belongs to the Zingiberaceae family and as such is related to that other staple of Asian cookery, ginger. Like ginger, it is the root of the turmeric plant that provides the fragrant spice, which adds warmth and earthiness to many dishes.

Beyond Asia

We most associate turmeric with Indian food – it is, after all, an essential ingredient in many curry recipes. As well as giving an earthy depth to a Chicken Madras, the vivid yellow/orange of turmeric is often used to give Pilau Rice a golden colour. Outside of India, it can be found in other Asian cuisines, such as Thai, Vietnamese and Cambodian.
Further afield, it is the ability of turmeric to add vivid colour to dishes that has also made it popular in Middle Eastern cooking, including such dishes as Persian Turmeric Chicken, or the intriguing sounding ‘Sfouf’, which is a sweet turmeric cake.


Perfect pilau: The golden colour is often a result of using turmeric.

Turmeric can also be found in South African cuisine, once again providing colour as well as flavour to the country’s unofficial national dish, ‘Bobotie’, which is a custard-topped cross between a meatloaf and a shepherds pie. Turmeric also goes back to its roots in the Indian-inspired (but uniquely South African) Durban-born street food, ‘Bunny Chow’.

Spice up your workout

It is not only your taste buds that benefit from turmeric. The key component of turmeric is a chemical compound called curcumin (not to be confused with the equally earthy Mediterranean spice, cumin). It is this curcumin that gives turmeric its medicinal qualities.

Turmeric has been used in Asian medicine for as long as it has been used in Asian cookery. Valued for its digestive properties, turmeric was also used for wound dressing – even today, it is regarded as a natural anti-bacterial agent.

The anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric are also well documented, with the symptoms of chronic inflammatory disorders such as arthritis and psoriasis being improved by the consumption of curcumin. A 2014 study in the International Journal of Sports Medicine found that turmeric reduced exercise-induced oxidative stress, thus adding it to your post-exercise smoothie will aid your recovery. This is probably more convenient than the advice from the British Journal of Sports Medicine, which suggested applying it directly to aching limbs.

Medicinal uses

The most exciting medical use of turmeric/curcumin is undoubtedly its potential as an anti-cancer treatment. Whilst clinical trials are still in their early stages, there have been some promising results, both as a preventative and a complementary treatment alongside chemotherapy.

For men, particularly as they age, turmeric has been shown to have some real benefits for prostate health. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that India has a very low prostate cancer rate.

Even if you don’t eat a lot of Indian food, you may still be consuming turmeric. It is often used to colour food a golden yellow: everything from biscuits to ice cream. If you see ‘E100’ on the ingredients list, it’s not a chemical nasty, it’s curcumin.

Having read all of this, I’m sure you want to get more turmeric into your diet. As a key ingredient of Asian cuisine, eating more Indian or other Asian foods could be the answer. Turmeric is one of the fresh, tasty spices you will find in the Cafe Asia range. You’ll be able to find our range in branches of Iceland across the UK from November 2015.


Image credits:

‘Turmeric’ by Steven Jackson, CC BY 2.0

Veg pulao: By Nandhinikandhasamy (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons