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Turmeric’s vivid orange colour, sharp flavour and subtle citrusy aroma are the power behind curry powder, mustard, pickles and spicy meat, fish, vegetable and rice dishes. In the fields where it grows, the turmeric plant hides its brilliant colour underground, showing only glossy green leaves and multi-petaled white flowers. But dig up the root, carefully clean and dry it, and you have an extraordinary spice beloved as much for its colour as its flavour. This member of the ginger family is a common ingredient in spice blends from the Caribbean, India, Indonesia, the Middle East and North Africa. In the bottle, it should smell earthy with a touch of ginger, and have consistent, bright yellow-orange colour.
Q: If I don’t have turmeric on hand, what makes a good substitute?
A: Turmeric is used more for its colour than its flavour. Sweet paprika has a bit more flavour, but its rosy red colour can stand in nicely for turmeric’s yellow-orange. Use it in equal measure.
Europeans were latecomers to turmeric’s charms. It wasn’t until the 13th century that Italian explorer Marco Polo encountered turmeric in China and brought it home. He admired its similarity to the colour of saffron, the vibrant—and wildly expensive—stamens of the crocus flower. But turmeric already had a long history in Asia, both as a dye and a spice. Today, turmeric colours many things, from curries, mustard and pickles to silk and cotton, including the beautiful “saffron” coloured robes of Hindu monks.