Learning the true shape of our food sometimes comes as a surprise. The challenge of carrying ingredients across time and distance plus the reality of everyday cooking has transformed the look, feel and -- most importantly -- taste of many foods.
That dry, yellow powder known here as turmeric is certainly one of them.
Looking at a little bottle of it in the supermarket, it's hard to believe that this cousin of ginger boasts the same family's gracefully arched leaves and large, stunning blossoms. There are many varieties grown in India, from where nearly all the world's supply comes. Turmeric's fragrant bite and intensely golden hue make it a key ingredient in the cuisine and culture of Asia's southern and southeastern regions. It's applied as an effective antibacterial tonic in Ayurvedic medicine, simmered in peppery Burmese soups and infused into golden cones of nasi kuning at Indonesian weddings.
Many foods more familiar to Westerners, say ballpark mustard and certain cheeses, also gain their yellow hue from turmeric. It's often dismissed, unfairly, as a lesser substitute for saffron by those who haven't tried it in its whole, fresh form or who aren't familiar with its native, rather than derivative, uses. The Royal Botanical Kew Gardens maintains an excellent website where you can learn more about the ancient history, botany, medicinal uses and spiritual traditions of turmeric.