Entering the Indian restaurant on Jordan Lane on a summer afternoon makes me swoon as a heady aroma of cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric, onion, garlic, asafoetida wafts in my nostrils along with the sweat of the cook from Pathankot! Steaming hot tureens of biryani, chana masala, sag paneer and eggplant fritters greet the eye and are served by the courteous and affable staff. When I dine with my girl friends, they often close their eyes, inhale deeply and allow me to take them on a culinary trip into the exotic back alleys of ancient cities like Delhi, Banaras and Mumbai.
I have lived in Alabama for over three decades but my spice-primed taste buds compel me to eat Indian food often, and as I spread a dab of chutney on my papad, my heart skips a beat and I am back in my mother’s kitchen, like a happy baby curled up in a cosmic womb. As I wipe the spice off my fingers, I smile at the golden stain that clings to my skin, a bit like yellow pollen that dusts off from white lilies, clinging to my fingers when I arrange a bouquet but this golden patina has a deeper aura and wants to penetrate into my very core.
No… Anna, I correct my erudite friend as she admires the sunny slivers of cabbage on her plate, the color is not from the stately saffron but from the ubiquitous cousin of ginger root my haldi and your turmeric!
As my friends enjoy the colorful vegetables on their plate, I am lost in another reverie, the time when I first opened my mother’s spice box. My sister and I loved to peer into its tiered, painted chambers. To our inquisitive eyes it was more compelling than her shringar box (make-up box). The spice box held assorted ground and whole spices: turmeric, cumin, bay leaves, coriander, mustard, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, black pepper corn, cayenne, mango powder, cloves and salt. This fragrant treasure trove had the power to change one’s genetic code.
Turmeric comes from Old English turmeryte or tarmaret or Latin terra merita (meritorious earth). The name of the genus, Curcuma, is derived from the Sanskrit kuṅkuma, slaked lime referring to both turmeric and saffron, used in India since ancient times. Most turmeric is used in the form of rhizome powder to impart a golden yellow color. Turmeric has an earthy, slightly pungent mustard-like aroma, and is the principal ingredient in curry powders. It is used mostly in savory dishes and pickles but may be used in some sweets. In the West, it is used in canned beverages, baked products, dairy products, ice cream, yogurt, orange juice, biscuits, popcorn color, cereals, broths, sauces, and gelatin. Cambodian, Indonesian and Thai curry paste and soups contain fresh turmeric. In India a popular winter drink is warm haldi doodh “turmeric latte” also known as “golden milk” in the United Kingdom.
Turmeric grows wild in the forests of South and Southeast Asia, where it is sourced for Ayurvedic, Yunani and Chinese medicines. Curcumin, the active ingredient of turmeric has been studied in the West as a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis and cancer, in India it is used to treat myriad maladies.
In our garden in Mumbai, there is a perennial herbaceous haldi plant about 3 feet tall with a double row of alternating leaves. At the top of the inflorescence, are light-green and reddish-purple tapering bracts. As I hold the knotted, aromatic rhizome in my hand that yields turmeric I remember that when I hurt myself, my mother cleaned my scraped skin and applied a dab of turmeric on it, telling me to watch my step. When I had a sore throat, she bundled me up with Vicks VapoRub and a cup of warm milk with a potion of roasted turmeric, black pepper and honey, to take the itch out of my tonsils soothing me to a dreamless sleep. A face mask of clotted cream, a pinch of turmeric and coarsely ground besan (chickpea flour) was my mother’s daily exfoliating beauty ritual. When I felt feverish, my mother stirred in turmeric, ginger and a get-well-incantation into a soft besan halwa, a recipe honoring the ancient wisdom of the Earth Mother.
Turmeric is entrenched in Hindu traditions. During Hindu wedding celebrations in North India, a haldi ceremony is performed the day before the wedding: The bride and groom are anointed with a paste of turmeric, sandalwood and rose. In Bengal this is called (gaye holud) in memory of Lord Shiva and Sati’s wedding where haldi followed by mehendi (henna) were applied to the couple to calm their nerves prior to the event. In South India, dried turmeric tuber garlands and bracelets as wedding bonds (thalis) are the equivalent of marriage rings in the West. At Khandoba‘s temple in Jejuri, a town in Maharashtra India, devotees throw turmeric powder on each other. During the colorful festival of holi, haldi-water is splashed around gleefully and eventually everyone starts to look like a Buddhist monk!
I bid my friends adieu and drive back home, my senses satiated with good food and conversation. On a whim, I stop at the farmer’s market on Hughes Road and treat myself to Piper and Leaf artisan iced tea handmade from slippery elm, ginger and turmeric! The tingly clean warmth percolates from my throat to my belly and into my soul. I become golden!
Monita Soni is a pathologist and helps diagnose cancer. Her writing style weaves Eastern and Western cultures. You can hear her commentaries on WLRH-Sundial Writers corner and on “All Things Considered.”