Chow Town

Why turmeric has reached super spice status and how you can add it to your recipes

Chicken Tikka Wraps
Chicken Tikka Wraps

After reading about turmeric’s anti-inflammatory properties, I wondered if it might help my longtime digestive issues. Confident I wouldn’t take time to create turmeric-infused dishes daily, I added the spice to my morning coffee, plus cayenne and cinnamon.

Within weeks, my typically sluggish digestive system had transformed.

Turmeric has recently caught renewed attention in the culinary world. It appeared in the February issue of Bon Appétit magazine as an ingredient for Turmeric-Ginger Chicken Soup, and several months later as Turmeric-Ginger Tonic With Chia Seeds.

It’s also a key element in wildly popular “golden milk.” Touted as a health-promoting beverage, it features coconut milk (or milk) simmered with juiced, shredded or powdered turmeric and coconut oil. Fans of golden milk may enhance the flavor with sugar, cinnamon, honey, ginger, peppercorns or other ingredients. has made the case for How to Eat Turmeric (And Why You Should), and has described How to Make an Anti-Inflammatory Turmeric Paste You’ll Want to Add to Everything. offers an exhaustive description of turmeric’s uses and health benefits and you can also buy turmeric supplements.

“It’s definitely becoming more and more popular as more of the health benefits have been researched and talked about,” says local nutritionist Lisa Markley. “It’s pretty simple to incorporate turmeric into familiar dishes. You can put it in scrambled eggs or egg salad for color, or use it in more exotic dishes like curries. I sometimes grate fresh turmeric, or sprinkle powdered turmeric, into a smoothie.”

Cooking with turmeric

A South Asian rhizome and herbaceous perennial plant, turmeric has long been used in traditional healing practices — especially Indian traditional and Siddha medicine — and cuisine. The small, firm, even-toned root is best used in the kitchen when it has no blemishes or dark spots.

Beneath turmeric’s thin, fibrous skin, its flesh can range from the color of sweet potato to shirt-staining saffron yellow. Turmeric “stains” everything dramatically, contributing an extra-deep hue to many mustards and mustard powder. Dried, powdered turmeric root contributes potent flavor to curry dishes and is a significant ingredient in most commercial curry powders.

Turmeric may accentuate savory Persian and Moroccan dishes, while some Iranian khoresh dishes feature onions caramelized in oil and turmeric. The pretty spice colors and flavors many Nepalese vegetable and meat dishes, and Vietnamese dishes such as mi quang.

Ameet Malhotra, owner of Kansas City’s Elephant Wings, a weekend personal chef experience for dinner parties of 6-12 guests, prefers to use turmeric powder because of its convenience. He combines it with a variety of spices, including cumin, cinnamon, fenugreek, cilantro and panch puran spice.

Originally from Mumbai, India, and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and a graphic designer with Hallmark, Malhotra moved to the United States in 1998.

After Malhotra’s family immigrated, too, his father began cooking as his own father had cooked, sparking Malhotra’s interest. His grandma taught him many vegetable dishes, and he began to experiment with Indian spices and garnishes. Today, Malhotra also shares his culinary passion with his young son, Aadi.

Physician Jyoti Mukharji, who teaches Indian cooking classes in her home, favors powdered turmeric too. She has had 2,800 students since starting the classes in February 2010.

“Fresh turmeric doesn’t blend as well when added to curries, and it’s not a pleasant taste on your tongue,” she says.

Nutritionist Markley says she also prefers to use turmeric powder.

“It’s easier to keep on hand and use on a more consistent basis. But any time you use the dried spice, make sure it hasn’t been in your cupboard for a year or two.

“If you only want a little, you might look into bulk spice options. You can start small — maybe a quarter of a teaspoon — and incrementally add a little more. The fact that it pairs with coconut helps to improve the bioavailabilty of (turmeric). Fresh turmeric has a brighter, cleaner flavor and is a little less pungent, so it’s a little harder to overdo it.”

James Beard award-winning executive chef Michael Smith, who owns Extra Virgin and Michael Smith restaurants, uses both powdered and fresh turmeric in his Mediterranean dishes.

He appreciates the quality of turmeric powder available at Al Habashi Mart, 888 International Market and Hung Vuong Market.

“I like to use turmeric when I see it at the stores, almost always in savory dishes,” Smith says. “(We use) turmeric powder if we’re making a ragout or some kind of sauce, but I love to use fresh turmeric for ceviche.

“Turmeric goes with acids, basils and mints. It’s better in small doses. We peel it and then slice it very thin, on a mandolin. If you’re making a vinaigrette, put it in a blender.”

In India, fresh turmeric is primarily eaten for medicinal reasons, Mukharji says. “Peel fresh turmeric, take a piece that is about an inch long and eat it with a crude piece of sugar.”

She often uses the seasoning with lentil dishes, especially yellow lentils, and in meat dishes such as kormas — a basic meat curry cooked in most Indian homes. Some of these meat dishes may also include onion, ginger, garlic, tomatoes or plain yogurt.

“When I make a dish, I use turmeric for coloring and flavoring,” Mukharji says. “Add it in the beginning so the turmeric gets cooked and the flavor marries with the dish. I personally don’t like the aroma of it; it must be cooked to overcome the taste and the smell.”

Curry powder combines turmeric with up to 14 additional ingredients, Mukharji says. “It’s primarily marketed for the Western world, as a very exotic ingredient, but people wouldn’t know what you’re asking for in India.”

Markley uses the warming spice in golden milk or in smoothies with orange and banana.

“At a coffee shop I go to you can get turmeric in tea bags and have it with steamed milk,” she says, adding that she has also made a turmeric spritzer with lime juice.

Smith pairs turmeric with many fruits, including pineapple, citrus and apples, as well as garlic and multiple chili varieties. Turmeric-infused sauce may top grilled fish or any kind of shellfish, such as scallop ceviche, or grilled lamb racks with date molasses and vinegar sauce, served with spicy fresh ginger drizzle sauce and jicama/cilantro/turmeric/onion/parsley/apple slaw.

Malhotra uses turmeric in every dish he makes. Mukharji appreciates its medicinal properties.

“Turmeric is such a terrific antiseptic. In Indian farm communities, 15 miles in a cart can take a day or a day-in-a-half to get to the hospital, (so they put) clarified butter with turmeric powder on wounds.”

Turmeric’s health benefits

The primary compound responsible for turmeric’s anti-inflammatory properties is curcumin.

Traditionally consumed in stews, stir-fry dishes and teas, turmeric typically co-stars with other “warming” spices.

The most effective way to ingest turmeric is by combining it with black peppercorns. They contain piperine, which drastically increases the body’s ability to absorb turmeric into the bloodstream while it slowly metabolizes in the liver. Adding coconut oil or other fats also facilitates the metabolic process.

Turmeric has been used as a treatment for everything from flu symptoms to the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, preliminary research has suggested curcumin may slow the spread of — and possibly prevent — some forms of cancer, and liver or heart disease.

Want to ease stress or boost brain health? Add turmeric to your diet. You may simultaneously stabilize your blood sugar, lower your cholesterol and reduce symptoms associated with heartburn or irritable bowel syndrome. Studies have indicated that turmeric may also reduce bladder inflammation as well as gallbladder disorders and kidney problems.

This long-revered pain killer has been employed to alleviate menstrual, arthritis or fibromyalgia symptoms, while promoting recovery from bronchitis and lung infections. Its antimicrobial properties may relieve inflammatory skin conditions and gum disease or infected wounds, too.

Refreshing Ginger Turmeric Limeade Spritzer

Fresh squeezed lime juice is swirled together with anti-inflammatory turmeric and ginger in this vibrant and refreshing spritzer.

Makes 1 serving

2 limes, juiced (approximately 1/4 cup)

1 1/2-2 tablespoons pure maple syrup

1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger

1/2 teaspoon dried ground turmeric or 1 teaspoon freshly grated turmeric

1 pinch of sea salt

Pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)

12 ounces sparkling water

Place all ingredients in a tall glass and top off with water, allowing room for ice cubes, if desired. Stir well, add ice and enjoy.

From the forthcoming “The Essential Thyroid Cookbook: Over 100 Nourishing Recipes for Thriving With Hypothyroidism and Hashimoto’s” by Lisa Markley and Jill Grunewald. Publication date: Sept. 19, 2017

Golden Cauliflower “Rice”

Cauliflower “rice” is simply made from cauliflower florets that have been ground into fine, rice-like crumbs in a food processor. It provides a lighter grain-free base to rice pilaf style dishes and is loaded with antioxidant nutrition. This recipe gets its golden color from curry powder, which contains the anti-inflammatory spice turmeric.

Makes 2 servings

1/4 cup slivered raw almonds

2 cups chopped cauliflower

2 tablespoons ghee or coconut oil

1/2 yellow onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 teaspoons curry powder

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 cup currants

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread almonds out on a sheet pan and place in the oven until toasted, approximately 6-8 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.

Place cauliflower in the bowl of food processor affixed with an S-blade. Pulse a few times until it’s coarsely chopped and resembles the texture of rice. Set aside.

Heat ghee or oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onions and saute for 3-4 minutes, until they begin to soften. Add garlic, cauliflower, curry powder and salt and cook for an additional 4-5 minutes, stirring frequently.

Remove from heat and stir in almonds, currants and cilantro.

Cook’s notes: Use orange cauliflower in this recipe, if available, to add additional color and carotenoids. Raisins can be substituted for currants, if desired. If you don’t have a food processor, use the medium to large holes on a box grater to coarsely grate.

From the forthcoming “The Essential Thyroid Cookbook: Over 100 Nourishing Recipes for Thriving With Hypothyroidism and Hashimoto’s” by Lisa Markley and Jill Grunewald. Publication date: Sept. 19, 2017

Chicken Tikka Wraps

Makes 4-6 servings

1 1/2 to 2 pounds boneless chicken breasts

Olive oil

1 1/2 teaspoons coriander powder

1 1/2 teaspoons cumin powder

2 teaspoons paprika powder

1 teaspoon curry powder

4 to 6 cloves of garlic (more, to taste)

1 inch-thick piece ginger

1 tablespoon fresh, grated turmeric

2 serrano peppers (depends on how spicy you like it)

1 bunch cilantro

1 large onion

4 medium tomatoes

1 lemon

2 cups plain yogurt

Roti/chapatti (available at an Indian grocery store or at Costco. Whole-wheat tortillas or even lettuce will do as well.)

Cut the chicken breasts into bite-size pieces and place in a Pyrex dish. Generously drizzle olive oil over the cut chicken pieces. Sprinkle salt to taste over chicken. Add coriander powder, cumin powder, paprika powder and curry powder.

In a food processor, chop the garlic, ginger, turmeric, serrano peppers and half of the bunch of cilantro leaves. Add the chopped mixture to the chicken. Thoroughly mix so that the chicken is coated universally with the spices and chopped mixture. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes. If you have time, refrigerate longer.

Chop and dice the onion, tomatoes and the rest of the cilantro and place in a bowl. Make sure you have equal parts of onion to tomato. Squeeze the lemon into the bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste. Mix ingredients together and refrigerate. Put the yogurt in a bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste and refrigerate.

Cook the chicken in a pan until tender. Cook the roti in a flat pan until light brown. Make sure to flip and cook them on both sides. Wrap the cooked rotis in cloth and place them in a tortilla warmer, to ensure they stay hot and soft.

Lay each roti flat on a plate, and then add 3 to 4 pieces of chicken, the onion-tomato-cilantro mix, and the yogurt. Roll up the roti, and you are ready to go.

From Ameet Malhotra, owner of Elephant Wings

Bay Scallop Ceviche With Fresh Turmeric, Apple, Chilies and Pomegranate

Makes 4-6 servings

1/4 cup lemon juice

1/4 cup orange juice

1/4 cup lime juice

1 pound sushi-quality bay scallops, foot (side muscle) pulled off

1 small shallot, peeled and thinly sliced

1 serrano chili, sliced into paper-thin rings

3 tablespoons quality extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup Honeycrisp apple, small dice

2-3 teaspoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon fresh pomegranate seeds

1 piece fresh turmeric, peeled

1 teaspoon sumac

Combine the citrus juices in a small bowl and set aside. Combine scallops, shallot and chili in a medium stainless steel salad bowl. Add olive oil, apple and salt. Toss to mix well. Add citrus juices and stir with a spoon to coat the scallops.

Check the seasoning of the scallops for salt and heat. Add more if desired. Let scallops marinate in citrus juice for about 5 minutes.

To plate and serve: Divide the scallop mixture evenly among plates, making sure each plate has an even amount of ingredients. Sprinkle with fresh pomegranate seeds. Use a mandolin slicer to slice the turmeric into four or five very thin sheets over each scallop ceviche plate. Lastly sprinkle each dish with sumac and serve immediately.

From Michael Smith, executive chef and owner of Extra Virgin & Michael Smith

Chicken Korma With Aloo (Potatoes)

Makes 6-8 servings

A little more than 1/2 cup canola oil

2 bay leaves

1 cinnamon stick

4 green cardamoms

4 cloves

6 crushed black peppercorns

2 medium onions (or 1 large), finely chopped

2 large potatoes, quartered (as desired)

1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce

4 cloves of garlic, grated

1 1/2-inch piece of ginger, grated

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

1 1/2 pounds boneless chicken thighs, fat trimmed

4 skinless chicken legs

Salt to taste

Cayenne pepper (ground) to taste

1/2 cup plain, nonfat or low-fat yogurt, beaten


1/4 teaspoon garam masala (available at Ambica at 91st and Metcalf)

1 tablespoon cilantro

Heat the oil in a deep pan on medium. Add bay leaves, cinnamon stick, cardamoms, cloves and black peppercorns.

After a minute or so, add chopped onion and potatoes. Saute until onions are light brown. Add tomato sauce, garlic, ginger and turmeric, and saute for a few minutes until the oil separates out of the sauce.

Add the chicken, salt and cayenne pepper, and saute until the chicken changes color (roughly 10 minutes). Cover and cook on low-heat for 10 minutes, or until the potatoes and chicken are done. Add the yogurt, mix well, cover and turn off the flame.

Serve hot and garnish with garam masala and cilantro. Can be served with rice or Indian flatbread.

From Jyoti Mukharji