Discover the health benefits of turmeric, while delighting in this national West African dish bobotie-made with turmeric.
How Turmeric Grows
Turmeric comes from a herbaceous tropical plant in the ginger family, Curcuma longa. Our herb is its dried underground stem, or rhizome-the horizontal, underground stem of this ginger “root”. This special underground stem structure has been developed for nonsexual reproduction. In other words, a rhizome can “clone” itself by forming a storage organ that can produce its own roots and stem and become an independent-but genetically identical-plant; this is seen in sunchokes and all ginger “roots” in the ginger family, of which turmeric is one. In potatoes and yams, these swollen underground stem tips are called tubers. 1
Turmeric’s Preservation Process
Turmeric rhizomes are steamed or boiled in slightly alkaline water, in the making of this spice; this sets the color and precooks the abundant starch; then, these stems are sun-dried. Though turmeric is usually sold pre-ground, some ethnic and whole foods markets may carry it fresh or as dried rhizomes. 2
Whole Turmeric Likely Provides Different Benefits
This whole turmeric, as found in certain health and ethnic grocers, may provide different health benefits. Studies of its pre-ground form focus mostly on its constituent curcumin, which is just one of its curcuminoids (the other two being bisdemethoxycurcumin and demethyoxycurcumin). Turmeric also contains volatile oils, or aromatic terpines, such as tumerone, athlantone, and zingiberene. All these different substances are associated with unique health benefits. 3
The Flavor Components of Turmeric
Turmeric’s aromatic terpenes of turmerone and zingiberene give this herb a woody, dry earth aroma; it also has a slight bitterness and pungency. (For detailed information on flavor components found in herbs, see Sage Turkey Delight. 4
The Origins of Turmeric
Turmeric appears to have been domesticated long ago in India, probably for its leading characteristic of deep yellow pigment; the word curcuma comes from the Sanskrit for “yellow”. (For another reference of words for food, taken from Sanskrit, see Laban Bil Bayd.) In the U.S., turmeric has been primarily used to color mustards and provide their nonpungent filler; in addition, it also has been used in prepared curry powders, where it makes up 25-50% by weight of these blends. 5
Its Present Popularity Is Based on Its Health Benefits
In whfoods.org, George Mateljan observes that despite the past wide use of turmeric in cooking over several thousand years, now researchers are continually surprised by its wide-ranging health benefits, as a supplement. He lists some of these as: anti-inflammatory benefits, decreased cancer risk, support of detoxification, improved cognitive function, blood sugar balance, and improved kidney function. He goes on to claim that it may also lessen the degree of severity in certain forms of arthritis, as well as certain digestive disorders. 6
Some of its strengths as a spice are: turmeric helps retain beta-carotene in certain foods such as carrots and pumpkin, in the cooking process. Studies also show that turmeric may greatly help prevent the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which have been found to be so damaging, in the grilling of meat. 7
Curcumin Is Best Taken as a Supplement
Today, health experts focus mostly on curcumin, one of the curcuminoids found in turmeric. It is best to take curcumin as a supplement, rather than to try to absorb its benefits through cooking with it in spice-form. Consuming curcumin with black pepper enhances its absorption by 2000%, because of the piperine in pepper. Be sure to check your supplements to insure they contain piperine. Curcumin is also fat-soluble, so it is advised to take it with a fatty meal. 8
My Past with the Recipe Bobotie
When I was studying food in Peru in 1985, I met a couple from West Africa. Upon learning about my work, they were anxious to share their personal receipt for their national dish bobotie, but I declined it, saying I already had this in my repertoire back home. How often I have regretted my quick retort!
Applying Lessons in the Kitchen to Life
As we were exploring in my last entry on nkyemire, everything is about “keeping our kitchens clean”. We tidy all up, as we go along in the cooking process, as well as in our lives; this way we don’t end up with an overwhelming mess at the end, in either our environments or our beings.
Humility is key to accomplishing the above, as is balance. In the final analyses, we must admit that of ourselves we are without the power to effect lasting change. Balance, however, is required, for without our fervent participation, God also is unable to effect permanent change within us. We can-must-ask for humbleness of mind and stability in our beings, for he loves to help those who seek him.
- Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking (New York: Scribner, 1984, 2004), p. 263.
- Ibid., p. 430.
- Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking (New York: Scribner, 1984, 2004), p. 430.
Bobotie (African Lamb or Beef Curry-Custard Dish) Yields: 8-10 servings. Total prep time: 2 hr/ active prep time: 40 min/ baking time: 80 min.
2 tbsp butter
2 med onions, chopped
2 lbs ground lamb or beef (Organic ground beef is $5.95/lb at Trader Joe’s, and our local Grocery Outlet usually carries ground lamb for $6.49/lb.)
2 lg eggs
1/4 c milk
2 slices bread, broken in small pieces
1/4 c dried apricots, chopped small
1/4 c raisins
1/4 c blanched, slivered almonds, chopped
2 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp curry powder
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp salt (Himalayan, pink, or Real Salt is critical for optimum health; an inexpensive fine grind Himalayan salt is available at Costco for $4.95 for 5 lbs.)
5 lg bay leaves (It’s preferable to get these in bulk at your favorite grocery store, so you can choose large bay leaves, if possible.)
3/4 c milk
1/4 tsp turmeric
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- In a large sauté pan, sweat (cook until translucent) onion slices, in hot butter; see photo. Add lamb or beef, salt and pepper generously, as salting meat heavily while cooking adds greatly to flavor; cook until browned. Remove from heat.
- In a large bowl, combine egg, 1/4 c milk, and bread crumbs; mash bread with a fork.
Add apricots, raisins, almonds, sugar, curry, lemon, and salt. Blend well.
- Using a slotted spoon, remove cooked meat to the fruit/almond mixture. Mix well and place in a 2-quart casserole. With hand, spread out evenly and press down firmly.
- Gently press in bay leaves, using a finger to make a hole in meat, prior to placing in the bay leaf (see photo above).
Bake uncovered for 20 minutes.
- Meanwhile make topping in a small bowl, by beating egg, milk and turmeric lightly; set aside.
- After 20 minutes, pour topping over mixture in casserole (see photo).
- Bake 40 more minutes; at which point, take out bay leaves.
- Continue baking until custard is completely set, about 20 additional minutes; see photo at top of recipe. Serve with rice and chutney and experience heaven!