Tuesday, 30 June 2009

It's Turmeric Tuesday

...because I missed Monday?

Haldi, curcuma, manjal, zirsood, kunyit, that yellow powder that stains your fingers and clothes, otherwise known by its generic name, Turmeric. Also featured to great distraction onGoodness Gracious Me, in the episode titled, 'Punjabi Pleasure Line'... but that's really a whole other line of turmeric thought to be discussed another day.

Turmeric is literally a wonder plant. I've worked with it several times on my shows, but my very first experience with it came when I moved to Singapore as a kid in the 70s, and found all these ladies with yellowed skin on Serangoon Road. Too young to understand they were treating and cooling their skin, I just thought they were well, a bit misinformed? Turns out, I was.

I'd only know turmeric as an Indian larder staple till then (as it is in Indonesian and Malay kitchens too) and that it's often confused with Saffron - even called Indian Saffron which is pretty misleading. While it has similar properties - colour, taste and aroma - it isn't saffron - the aromatic, dried stamen of the purple crocus flower. Turmeric is instead a tuberous rhizome (fancy talk for old looking, knobby root) from the ginger family.

This centuries old root, first discovered as native to India and Indonesia more than 5,000 years ago, and also witnessed in China (by Marco Polo), is literally a powerhouse of healing.

It is nature's most powerful anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory, used in both Ayurvedic and TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) practices but also as a crossover revelation in Western medicine, where it has been researched to very promising levels for its likely ability to enhance a particular enzyme that protects the brain through life. Exciting stuff for researches trying to crack the maze of challenges in serious, progressively degenerative neuro disorders like Alzheimer's.

Both Ayurveda and TCM employ the root for its ability to calm and cure inflammatory and digestive troubles: from upset stomachs to blood purification, the common cold to leprosy, skin rejuvenation to contraception... the list goes on. In Okinawa, Japan, which continues to produce one of the highest life expectancy rates recorded in the world, a normal day includes a couple of servings of fermented turmeric tea, which esteemed integrative medicine specialist Dr Andrew Weil sought out and used as a template for his own line of ready-to-drink restorative teas which he developed together with Japanese brand Ito En: Dr Andrew Weil for Tea.

In Indonesian Jamu and Muslim Unani practices, turmeric is used together with tamarind and other herbs to create an energising Jamu tonic, and as a paste to heal wounds and cleanse the liver - Unani practices are fairly closely related to Ayurveda - respectively.

As a food condiment in Indian, Malay and Indonesian food (generally used in its powdered form) it's a very basic kitchen cupboard staple for any cook who aims to be worth their curries or dhals (lentils).

Being a natural super antiseptic it adds a dash of purification to any food its involved with, while that slightly rooty, medicinal smell and taste transforms on the fire into an exotic touch of herb, and its gorgeous, gorgeous hue of yellow takes bland to absolutely beautiful. As a child, I distinctly recall my grandmother and mother's recipes for any raw, gamey meat to always be washed in salt and turmeric, to both cleanse the raw food, and leave the meat odour free.

Turmeric also comes with an inbuilt sting, as so many edible/medicinal plants and herbs do: too much is never a good thing on any level; with turmeric it's a bitter, throat-catching pill to swallow. So go real easy if you're using it for the first time.. it's not a taste you can mask or change later.

While I've eaten turmeric all my life, it wasn't till I started dabbling in Asia's vast encyclopedia of ancient beauty secrets that I began to understand the beauty rituals of those ladies I'd witnessed on Serangoon Road as a child of 7. Because turmeric, as much as it is a godsend for delicious dining, and inner health, is a wonder on the outside too.

In a particular episode of Bare Beauty Season I, I'd formulated a face mask which turned all my willing episode guests' faces, lightly yellow. The point of the skin cleansing face mask, which borrowed from Javanese Lulur principals where turmeric is used together with yoghurt, fragrant oil, sandalwood, rice powder and jasmine to purify and cleanse the entire body prior to one's wedding day, was to show the audience a simplified turmeric face mask.

Looking back, it was a hilarious moment early on in the show, but at the time, the collective panic as the camera rolled on and I did my thing, was palpable - most of all rising inside me as I painted my guest's faces progressively, visibly, ever so slightly yellow, all the while extolling the virtues of turmeric.

Yes, we certainly achieved results - the turmeric worked a little more strongly on skin that was inflamed or needed to be cleared up, stinging it slightly; on others it washed off to leave a softness that was surprising to most. Thank god however, the yellow sheen it left behind washed off and wore off in half an hour, because results or no results, I would have had some answering to do with a group of urbanites headed out for evening cocktails.

Perhaps the most evocative use of turmeric however, is its association with the spiritual life. And this to me is its most gorgeous, poetic role.

For eons, turmeric has played an intrinsic role in the Hindu faith's myriad of evocative religious ceremonies, but so intrinsic that, despite having been to the temple so many times, I've barely noticed just how much it's revered as a symbol of fertility, prosperity and purity.

For instance, when priests bless statues of god's and goddesses - the water they're bathed in contains turmeric; when a woman is given the dried root inside a betel leaf it signifies good luck and here's hoping you have lots of babies.

But perhaps the biggest revelation to me, and one that left me dumbstruck in my ignorance and lack of observation was this. Sindoor. The red powder (also known as Kumkum) and powerful forehead symbol of an Indian woman's maritial status , dotted along her hairline and onto the forehead where the ajna chakra, or seat of wisdom, is said to be, is, when traditionally and most simply made... a mixture of turmeric and lime.

Of course, sindoor has long since courted controversy because the commercial versions are utter poison, containing high levels of potentially fatal mercury, lead and toxic dyes. To find traditional sindoor is exceptionally tricky, because there's little control over how it's actually made and, a severe lack of verification from even known sources that what you're dotting on is authentic and toxic free.

And then of course, there are all the alternative views and associations with lack of free will, mark of ownership and all that. Me thinks that too, will have to be another blog, but after the one on Punjabi Pleasure Lines (read above if you've forgotten).

Or perhaps the seat of wisdom would be better released, if only women ruled the sindoor industry?

Easy stomach soother: down a glass of buttermilk with a pinch of turmeric powder
swirled in and calm a sensitive stomach

Body/face polisher minus the Big Bird hue: A tablespoon of chickpea flour (to smooth),
a pinch of turmeric (to cleanse), and two teaspoons of milk (to firm), mix, rub gently all over body and wash off with warm water. No soap follow up necessary.

NB: use rice flour if you have common flour allergies

CAUTION: A turmeric rhizome infusion (essentially taking a dried bit of turmeric root and steeping it in hot water) is said to effect abortion. If you are pregnant please avoid herbal remedies and seek the assistance of both your obstetrician and a qualified, listed and practising herbalist.

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