As a graduate student working towards my PhD in molecular biology at a highly regarded US University, the last thing I expected to hear touted for its beneficial effects on cancer (and pretty much everything else) was 'haldi'! Having grown up in India, I had witnessed the spice turmeric or haldi being indiscriminately claimed as the ultimate panacea for all ailments. Fighting a sore throat? Turmeric boiled in milk was what mum (and often the doc) ordered. Suffering a digestive upset? Turmeric-infused 'khichdi' - rice and lentil porridge - was a must. Healing from an open wound? A paste of turmeric and water would do the trick. And even plagued by unwanted body hair?! Turmeric mixed with chickpea flour and water was better than anything Sally Hansen could concoct. You can therefore imagine my delighted surprise when world-renowned scientists and clinicians at Harvard and everywhere else were suddenly obsessed with curcumin, a bioactive component of turmeric, for its miraculous medicinal properties.
Ancient medical systems like Ayurveda in India and Traditional Chinese Medicine began using turmeric as medicine about 4000 years ago. It has a plethora of claimed health benefits including anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, choleretic (promoting bile production by the liver), antimicrobial and carminative (preventing formation of and easing discomfort from abdominal gas) effects. Traditionally therefore, it's been used for digestive distress, jaundice, menstrual problems, heart disease, colic, gallbladder ailments, arthritis, conjunctivitis, skin cancer, small pox, chicken pox, wound healing, urinary tract infections, liver problems, respiratory conditions, anorexia and diabetic wounds. The list is long! A query for turmeric on Pubmed, a search engine for all biomedical research and review articles, yields 3000+ results over the last 70 years. Modern science is frantically trying to understand why this miracle spice has dominated the traditional medicine cabinet for centuries and how it may be used effectively in modern medicine.
Turmeric is the underground stem, known as a rhizome, of the plant Curcuma longa of the ginger family. Fresh turmeric rhizomes look very much like ginger with a hint of orange on the skin. Upon slicing them, it becomes apparent why turmeric is called the Golden Spice or Indian Saffron. A fiery, almost fluorescent orange, fresh turmeric has an earthy, peppery and vibrant aroma and flavor. Most turmeric, however, is consumed in powdered form. Ground turmeric has an earthy and peppery but also slightly bitter and mustard like smell. You can find it in most grocery stores in the ethnic aisle or in Indian, Nepalese or Pakistani food stores (although see note on lead contamination below). The fresh root is harder to procure but can be found at some health food and Thai or Indonesian shops. The ground spice can be stored away from light in an airtight container for about a year without too large a loss in freshness and aroma. Fresh turmeric root should be stored in the fridge for 1-2 weeks or frozen for longer periods. As some of you may have experienced, turmeric stains! It was used as a dye before anything else and if you've worked with it, fresh or dried, you know why that was such a brilliant idea centuries ago. If you don't want orangey fingernails, use gloves, If you forget to do so, nail polish remover works well. On clothes, pre-treating with detergent or stain remover and washing once or twice with ample sunshine for drying can help. Bleach is a good option for countertop stains.
A NOTE ON LEAD CONTAMINATION
There have been reports of some manufacturers using lead chromate to enhance the weight and color of turmeric powder. Lead-laced turmeric is more orangey-red than yellow. This was very alarming as lead in high enough quantities can be a neurotoxin and cause developmental delays in children. The benefits of turmeric were convincing enough that I wanted to sort through this issue before deciding whether or not to give it to my son. I wrote to a few well known spice brands inquiring about lead testing, including McCormicks, and was assured that they do test for lead in their ground turmeric to ensure it is safe. We recommend buying McCormicks or a well recognized, preferably organic brand for turmeric and really all spices. I would steer clear of unlabeled or unknown brands from ethnic shops. Also worth noting is that we are exposed to lead in a multitude of ways and our bodies have ways of clearing it, especially if our diets are well balanced in iron, calcium and vitamin C. I breathed a sigh of relief on discovering these facts. Just make sure your turmeric is from a reliable source and you're good to go.
As is typical here at Spice Spice Baby, we will diligently investigate whether turmeric's traditional health claims stand up to the modern scientific test and share our findings in a subsequent post. Without giving away the punch-line, let's just say there is enough reason to use turmeric A LOT in cooking for ourselves and our kids. For those unfamiliar with turmeric, it can seem daunting to use this somewhat foreign, a-bit-too exotic spice in mainstream, Western cooking. Fear not. Here we suggest 3 ultra easy recipes to incorporate this miracle spice into your baby's, kid's and family's food.
To health and haldi!
NOTE: The main medicinal component in turmeric is curcumin which is fat versus water soluble. Also, it's bioavailability is augmented in the presence of black pepper. We have therefore tried to add pepper and good fats to our recipes whenever possible. We suggest 1/8 - 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric for most recipes. If you've never used it, start with less and work your way up.
Turmeric Thai Curry
6 months+, Toddler, Kid, Adult
Both butternut squash and green beans are incredibly high sources of carotenoids which are converted to Vitamin A in the body and crucial for healthy skin, mucous membrane integrity and eye development. Coconut milk is rich in medium chain fatty acids which are more readily utilized for energy rather than for fat storage (take that cellulite). Moreover, lauric acid in coconut milk is converted into monolaurine in the body which has anti-viral and antibacterial effects. Combined with the benefits of turmeric, this is true baby super food. Add a bit more coconut milk and some salt for a 'thai inspired soup' perfect for the family table.
1 cup or 2 4oz baby meal servings
3 cups diced butternut squash (about half an average squash)
1 cup chopped green beans
Water for steaming
1 tablespoon olive, rapeseed or coconut oil
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped or grated ginger (optional)
1/8 - 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/8-1/4 teaspoon ground pepper (optional)
2 tablespoons coconut milk
Steam the butternut squash and green beans in a pressure cooker, steam basket or baby food maker of choice until soft. In a small saucepan, heat the oil until hot but not smoking. Add the ginger and sauté for one minute. Add the turmeric and sauté for another minute. Add the oil mixture, pepper (if using) and the coconut milk to the squash and beans and blend. Add water for a more liquid puree.
Serve as is for a nutritious, delicious baby meal. Add a bit of salt and some more coconut milk or water to make a warming winter soup for the family table. For spicy spice-loving adults, serve with chopped thai chillis.
6 months+, Toddler, Kid, Adult
Chickpeas provide a tremendous amount of insoluble fiber which regulates blood sugar and cholesterol levels, aiding heart health. This fiber is converted into short chain fatty acids by gut microbes which serve as fuel for cells lining the colon, thereby keeping this very important digestive organ in healthy, pristine condition. Tahini is a superb source of calcium and vitamins B and E. Combined with pita or wheat bread, hummus offers complete protein i.e. all 9 essential amino acids, critical for growing babies and toddlers (and us adults!)
2 1/2 cups
1 15oz can cooked garbanzo beans
2 tablespoons tahini
1-2 garlic cloves (optional, especially for younger babies)
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice ( from 3/4 of an average lemon)
2 tablespoons good olive oil
1/8 - 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/8 - 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper (optional)
6 tablespoons ice water
1/2 teaspoon salt (skip for babies)
Heat the oil over medium flame until hot but not smoking. Add the turmeric and stir the pan on and off for about a minute until the turmeric heats and opens up. Turn off the heat and allow the oil to cool. Meanwhile, rinse and drain the chickpeas and add to a blender bowl. Add the tahini, lemon juice, garlic, salt and pepper (if using) and cooled turmeric oil and blend. Add the ice-water (a Yotam Ottolenghi trick!) one tablespoon at a time while blending to smooth out the hummus.
Serve as a dip with chopped veggies, whole wheat breadsticks or pita bread for toddlers and adults or as a puree for babies. Slather on bread and top with chopped avocado (or other veggies) for a nutritious and tasty sandwich meal.
Turmeric Lemon Quinoa
12 months+, Toddler, Kid, Adult
An idea from our previous SpiceMama of the Month Priya Giri Desai (guest post here)
As discussed in a previous post here, quinoa is a true superfood containing essential vitamins like Riboflavin (B2) which helps energy production in the brain and muscle cells, important minerals like iron, magnesium and manganese, twice the fiber of most grains and protein. Rare for plant-based protein, quinoa contains ‘complete’ protein encompassing all 9 essential amino acids making it a truly perfect, balanced grain for kids. With its vibrant color, aroma and flavor from the turmeric and lemon in this recipe, it is a livelier healthier substitute for white rice.
1 tablespoon neutral oil like rapeseed or canola
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds (optional)
1/8 - 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 cup quinoa
2.5 cups water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Rinse the quinoa well to remove the bitter outer saponin coating, drain and set aside. Warm the oil in a pot for which you have a lid over medium heat. Add the cumin seeds, stirring the pot now and then until the seeds begin to pop but don't burn, about 1-2 minutes. Add the turmeric, letting it open up and infuse the oil, about a minute. Add the quinoa and sauté until the seeds are well coated with the oil, about 30 seconds. Add the water slowly, mix and cover with a lid. Once the mixture is boiling, reduce the heat to low and allow the quinoa to simmer until dry, about 10 minutes. Fluff up with a fork, stir in the lemon juice and serve.
Serve as a lighter, more nutritious substitute for rice with curries or stews. Stir in some veggies like carrots and peas while cooking and serve with some plain yoghurt on the side for a complete meal. You can also add in chopped raw veggies (tomatoes, carrots, fennel), nuts or seeds (pine nuts, pumpkin seeds) or raisins. Drizzle with some olive oil and more lemon, salt and pepper and top with fresh parsley or cilantro for a beyond healthy salad.