Spice Hunting: Turmeric


You may not think of turmeric as grill-fodder, but you should. It's earthy, rich, and lightly fragrant, and it won't overwhelm the chicken. Coat your chicken in yogurt mixed with turmeric and garam masala for a tandoori-style preparation that forms a fantastic crust.

Max Falkowitz

For most of my spice hunting life, I avoided turmeric. Denounced it, even.

Sure, I tried it. I got yellower food, smoker's fingers, and stains on my countertops that will never come out. Taste didn't much enter into the equation. But my mind can be changed. When it comes to food, I'm ready to admit I'm wrong if it means a good meal in the end. So in service of this column and oft-misunderstood turmeric, I sought a version of the spice that could change my ways.

"After tasting the real deal, one automatically understands why the food of over a billion people is stained with it."

It didn't take me long to learn that good turmeric is out there. Great turmeric. Turmeric that, after a whiff, grabs your collar and won't let go. Done right, it's an ingredient that can change the way you cook ethnic food. The aroma is intense: earthy, pungent, redolent of dried citrus peel and dusty streets soaked in sunlight. The flavor, though subtler, warms the tongue, the missing link between black pepper and chile. After tasting the real deal, one automatically understands why the food of over a billion people is stained with it.

And the rule for using it couldn't be simpler: Get it fresh, get it whole, or at least get it freshly ground.

Fresh vs. Dried

Turmeric, like ginger, is a rhizome, a fibrous self-propagating root. Really good Indian markets will sell it fresh, in two- to three-inch long fingers. It can be treated just like ginger: Once peeled, you can cut it into matchsticks, mince it, or grate it on a Microplane. Wrapped in plastic and stored in the refrigerator, fresh turmeric will keep about a week. It can be frozen for longer, but the flavor and aroma suffer.

My compromise is whole dried fingers, pictured above. When ground with a fine grater, they produce a flavor and perfume almost as good as fresh. Dried fingers are easier to find both in Indian markets and online. They are much friendlier to those of us without immediate access to ethnic markets, as they keep for years. Yes, grinding dried turmeric yourself is a time-consuming process, but it stinks the kitchen up beautifully, a lusty notice to all at home that a great meal is on its way. In slow-cooked dishes, you can just hack the turmeric into small pieces with a heavy cleaver and pop them in a pot with your other ingredients.

If neither of these options are available to you, seek out specialty spice merchants. Demand to know, with all the entitlement you can muster, if their turmeric is freshly ground. If so, purchase in small amounts and use quickly. If not, bypass it with a sigh and know that your dish will taste just as good, even if it doesn't have a bright yellow hue.

Chicken and rice, soaked in coconut milk. Proof that even on its own, turmeric can do wonders.

How to Use Turmeric

Once you have your turmeric, what can you do with it? Most minds immediately jump to Indian curries, and rightly so. Most commercial curry powders are primarily made of turmeric, after all. I tend to stick to South India with turmeric, adding it to spiced lentil soups, vegetable curries, fritters, and spice blends fried in oil to top dishes just before serving. Turmeric marries extremely well to black pepper, chile, cumin, coriander, and mustard seed—let the treads of those spices be your guide. It's hard for turmeric to become overpowering, so experiment boldly.

My personal favorite turmeric applications come from Southeast Asia, where it is added to curries, braises, noodles, rice, and fried meats. Indonesia in particular favors turmeric with chicken, coconut, and rice, be it in sautéed dishes, braises, or forms of pilaf. This week's recipe takes these dishes as inspiration for an Indonesian spin on classic chicken-and-rice. Chicken is braised in a turmeric-spiked bath of coconut milk before getting pulled off the bone into chunks. While the chunks crisp on a grill or under a broiler, rice soaks up the coconut bath. The crispy chicken is piled on top, then crowned with fried shallots and chiles. It's elevated comfort food, spicy and rich, but it also shows how even without a blend of other spices, fresh turmeric can carry a dish as a breakout success.

Turmeric now proudly occupies the first line in my spice cabinet. Fervor of the converted, you say? Maybe. But don't let that stop you.