Turmeric (Curcuma longa L. ) is native to southern India and Indonesia and has been used for over five centuries not only as a spice but also as a food or fabric dye and is known for its medicinal properties as an anti-inflammatory and antiseptic. Initially brought to Europe by Arab traders in the thirteenth century, the spice has found increasing popularity outside of India where it is used in many traditional Asian dishes and as a primary ingredient in curry powder.
Turmeric is a close relative of ginger and a member of the Zingiberaceae family along with cardamom and galangal. The plant’s rhizome is used fresh, as well as dried and ground. Its leaves can be used as a wrap as one might use grape, banana, or cabbage leaves. The spice imparts both a slightly bitter, nutty taste with an orange tint. About 97 percent of the world’s turmeric is produced in India.
References: Florida Gulf Coast University, University of Florida/IFAS Extension, University of Illinois Extension, USDA.
TYPES, VARIETIES & CUTS
While upwards of 50 cultivars of turmeric exist, the two most common are Madras and Alleppey. While some types are known by trade names based on attributes like thickness, color, smell, and hardness, varieties from India are named for their production region. Alleppey is preferred in the United States for its use as a spice and food coloring. Alleppey has a higher volatile oil and curcumin content than Madras. Madras is preferred in Britain and the Middle East for its brighter, intense light yellow color that is often used in curry and mustard paste.
Dried turmeric is generally imported as whole-rhizome fingers, bulbs, or splits. Good quality turmeric is clean with smooth skin and a uniform flesh and skin color. When broken, the rhizome should make a “metallic twang” or clean snapping sound.
Fingers are secondary branches that grow off of the ‘mother’ rhizome and measure about 1 to 3 inches long and less than 1 inch wide. Splits are bulbs that have been cut in half or quartered before curing. Rhizomes are then processed into powder or oleoresin within the importing country.
References: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University.