“Add turmeric for colour. . .” What utter ru..ish!!

August 31st, 2011

“I also add turmeric to make saffron rice.” What an absolute joke!

Unfortunately, this is the kind of stuff that has made people think that Indian food is nothing more than a ‘bl..dy curry in a hurry’. They think that having a beautiful, pale yellow colour added to their rice means they’ve somehow got an exotic Indian rice.

Half-baked knowledge, as we all know, is dangerous but the above statement is not even half-true, it is utterly false!

You can’t make saffron rice with turmeric; if you do, it is then called turmeric rice which is not Indian. Full-stop!!

But what is turmeric? And why is it used in Indian cooking?


Turmeric is a tuber, or rhizome, or a root that belongs to the ginger/galangal family. However, this isn’t a botany lesson so we won’t go any further down this path.

It has been used in ancient Indian medicine, called Ayurveda, for yonks and has numerous medicinal properties. As this isn’t a class on herbal medicine either, we’ll also avoid this path.

Turmeric is used in many other ways as well. Women apply a paste of turmeric and sandalwood 7 to 9 days before their marriage ceremony; after marriage, they also apply it onto the parting of their hair but nope, we’re definitely not going to travel down the path of the many cultural uses of turmeric, but I must just add that it’s also offered to the gods during Pooja . . . but let’s leave it at that.

Today you’ll be a part of my cooking class and learn about the use of this ancient and highly underrated spice, also called haldi, halad, haridra, manjal, and etc. There are mainly two kinds of turmeric in India namely, alleppey from Kerala which is bright yellow and the other one from Madras which is a slightly darker yellow. Both are good for cooking, and you may use either.

Having cooked for about 30 odd years around India and other parts of the world, here is what I have learnt about turmeric from the ustaads of Indian food.

In order to do this, our menu for this class is going to be:

poondu rasam (garlic and lentil soup),

vegetable nilgiri khurma (seasonal vegetables mixed with a spice/fresh herb and coconut chatni [paste]) and,

thakkali saadam (tomato rice) followed by a pachadi (raita) and appalam (papadum).

For the poondu rasam we boil the toor dal (yellow lentils) in plenty of water and add a pinch of turmeric just as the dal comes to the boil. This is done to bring out the natural colours of the dal rather than simply adding ‘yellow’ colouring.

Then, towards the end of our cooking, when we temper the rasam we add another pinch of turmeric to the hot oil. Again, this is done to bring out the natural colours of the soup and it also helps preserve it.

For the nilgiri khurma, what I have learned over the years is that when making a green herb chatni for it, add a pinch of turmeric to prevent any discolouration.

When making thakkali saadam we add a pinch of turmeric to the tomato chutney (thokku) after the chilli powder and before the asafoetida to bring out the natural colours of the tomatoes rather than adding any colour to them.

Whilst we’re cooking these dishes I usually give my class some more information about turmeric, namely:

When boiling spinach in water, add a pinch of turmeric to the water when it comes to the boil, add the spinach, then bring the water back to the boil (this is also known as blanching) and drain the spinach in iced water (this is known as ‘arresting’ as we don’t want the spinach to continue cooking). Squeeze the water from the cold spinach, chop or purée and toss in some hot oil with a pinch of turmeric. If you add the turmeric the spinach will remain bright green and it will also keep for a long, long time – in the fridge, of course!

So what is the purpose of adding turmeric to food?

Well, besides being an excellent antiseptic (my son always applies it onto an open wound after it has been cleaned) after a game of rugby or soccer, it is also an excellent anti-bacterial agent.

We also apply a pinch of turmeric to our chicken after it has been cut and is then kept in the fridge. The same applies to red meat. Adding the turmeric prevents the meat from going off.

Every night my son begrudgingly gargles with hot water to which is added a pinch of turmeric and salt but he hasn’t had the flu for years!

Research conducted at Yale University revealed that turmeric added to food in small quantities helped prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s. So, if you already have this terrible disease, G-d bless you, but if you don’t, for goodness’ sake start adding some turmeric to your kids’/grand kids’ food. You will thank the Indians for this simple addition far longer than if you forget to do this now!

Turmeric has been used in Indian food to help increase the metabolism; this is why we go to our local gym so that our metabolism increases so we can lose weight; but really, why put the weight on in the first place? Eat healthily and your visits to the gym won’t be as necessary!

Turmeric is also extremely good in bringing out positive passions and it makes people happy! My restaurant is turmeric coloured and all my staff are smiling and happy, thanks to the visual turmeric effect.

So, my dear friends of Indian food, using turmeric in food is mainly for its anti-oxidising properties and all the other positives follow on from this.

I really wish someone had told the world before the dam..d ‘curry’ took off that Indian cuisine is the healthiest food in the world and it is about prevention whilst the rest of the world is always talking about cure.

I do hope that you will join me some day on this journey of healthy eating!

Anah daata sukhi bhava!!

To try the three recipes mentioned above, click: vegetable nilgiri khurma,
poondu rasam and thakkali saadam.


  1. Divya Ramamoorthy

    Finally someone …
    Thank you! (With tremendous relief that our cuisine is still safe and well-preserved)
    For telling the truth. For drawing attention to idiots who call it “curry”. For the most needed wake up call ever!
    I live in the silicon valley of US and it sucks. I have never been to a place where Indian cuisine was ignored to the extent of categorizing all Indian foods under curry.
    To us Indians, the word Curry means a lot. It goes by region, by tradition, by family, by caste. There is so much attention to detail even in simplest of recipes like a tomato rasam.
    My sister Rathi @ http://ratsindear.wordpress.com/2011/08/16/ajoyed-by-his-cooking/ introduced me to your blog. And I have to thank you for the pains you are taking to save our cuisine across many seas.

  2. Nicky

    WOW! That was something to read n learn about,”Horse”,my dear friend!!

  3. Perumalsamy Vijayaraj

    This Info is too Good for all hoteliers. I strongly feel that the FACULTY MEMBERS of Hotel Management Schools should follow Chef Ajoy all Food History and teach the present set of students. Kudos to Chef Ajoy and keep it up Chef!!!!

  4. Dhawal Gadani

    Absolute Pleasure…. If I can dare to compare, I’d say, reading your blog Ajoy is like attending Saptak… The musical gathering of the Maestros of Classical Music for 7 days… That happens once a year in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, during the Winter months.
    Absolute pleasure….
    Keep sharing your wisdom, and your great food Ajoy, coz every Visit to Nilgiris and your blog takes me back to my Desh..

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