Successive bottles of golden turmeric powder have graced my spice rack over the years. Each was used only on occasions when a curry recipe called for its earthy aroma and brilliant color. Every year or so the old bottle was replaced by a new one. I have faithfully waited and hoped for the day when this intriguing plant would enter my white bread world.
Turmeric is a thickened underground stem that looks like a bloated caterpillar, much like its cousin ginger root. Under a brown paper-thin skin is copper colored flesh that surprises the uninitiated by staining everything it touches with a brilliant yellow dye. Turmeric has also been a home remedy, like aspirin, in the Asian subcontinent for centuries.
A chance encounter with turmeric's healing properties finally drew me into its orbit. I sampled a tincture of turmeric mixed with a little water at a farmers' market while vacationing in Scottsdale last year. To my surprise, the nagging pains in my joints disappeared in minutes. I have since learned that the curcumin compound in turmeric was responsible for my amazingly rapid relief. In a concentrated form, turmeric enters the bloodstream immediately, acts to repair damaged cells, blocks inflammation and, in effect, slows the aging process.
Since the 1920's, Americans have been sold enriched foods like Wonder bread with the promise that it would "build strong bodies 12 ways". Only in the past two decades have we finally proven that large scale food production destroys more nutrients than it replaces with manufactured vitamins. Our current mantra to consume fresh "superfoods" reflects our awareness of the micronutrients in natural foods. What's stopping Big Pharma from making these new micronutrients their next drug frontier? Nothing, they already have.
Nonetheless, it came as a shock to see a bottle of cinnamon pills in the vitamin section of my local supermarket the other day. Cassia cinnamon and turmeric are now being sold together as well as separately as antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. I mixed them in equal parts and was amazed by the aromatic harmony of warm, sweet cinnamon and cool, earthy turmeric. Why not use them together in cooking?
Freshly ground black pepper makes this combo work more effectively as a seasoning and nutrient. Much of the nutritional benefit of turmeric is lost because it metabolizes quickly in the gut. It isn’t easily absorbable either. Peperine acts to slow the body's metabolism allowing curcumin to remain available longer and improving absorption. Again, almost as if by design, peperine's heat on the tongue and its fresh pine aroma complements the combined aroma of turmeric and cinnamon. Voila!
So, why do I prefer to cook with these spices when popping them in pill form is so much easier and avoids having to wash dishes? Aside from the sensuous pleasure of inhaling their intoxicating scent, I have the satisfaction of knowing they are real. The dietary supplement business has been unregulated since the enactment of the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, A study this year found that 80% of the turmeric supplements were within 20% of their stated amounts. The less expensive brands probably contain a new cheaper petroleum-based synthetic curcumin that lacks helper compounds. In summary, there is no assurance you are getting what you see on the bottle label.
This spice mix - 2 parts each turmeric and cinnamon powder; 1 part ground black pepper; 1/2 part sea salt - is my “wellness” grade seasoning. I’ve stirred it into olive oil and brushed it on eggplant slices and carrots before roasting; beaten it into eggs for an omelette, blended it into coconut milk to braise baby white potatoes and replaced vanilla with it in crème caramel. Am I afraid of an overdose? When dealing in teaspoons with spices whose active ingredients constitute at most 7% of their weight, it’s hard to consume too much.
One nagging question remains. Why has it taken Western medicine so long to appreciate the 5000 year old healing traditions of India, China and our own native Americans? That is a subject for another blog.