Jars of Yellow Ginger for sale at the market in Punta Gorda, Belize.
Photo by Federico Cintrón-Moscoso.
This is a confession. I may have a problem. I'm a turmeric freak. I put it on everything. Eggs, sandwiches, pizza, salads, you name it, and I probably sprinkle some turmeric on it. I go through more turmeric in a week than most Indian restaurants go through in a month. Most of my plates and bowls are stained with that distinctive yellowy-orange hue after years of daily exposure. Most people think I'm a bit crazy when they watch me in the kitchen, especially when I start loading up with my herbs and spices. When I think food, I think medicine, and turmeric is one of my primary agents.
It all started a few years ago. I've been mostly vegetarian since the early 1990's. but it took a while for my vegetarian diet to actually become healthy. I eventually began cooking regularly, which led to my discovery of the joy of food. And as my interest in herbalism and natural medicine slowly grew out of that dietary change, I finally began to realize that eating well was my path to good health. I haven't had health insurance for over 20 years, so self-maintanance of my body has become something of a vital approach to my daily life. Part of that approach has been the regular inclusion of medicinal herbs and spices in my cooking, which began in earnest 4 or 5 years ago.
Then I went to Belize. I knew the local version of turmeric, called yellow ginger, was pretty common down in the southern town of Punta Gorda, but when I returned for my dissertation research 2 years ago, its prevalence really stood out. It's a common item in most kitchens around town, and is known widely as being a healthy addition to the diet. It's mostly produced by Maya farmers in the outlying villages, and is sold in old Nescafe jars at the market, and in a few of the small grocery stores in town. It's fresh and flavorful, and I couldn't get enough of it. My Belizean friends would marvel at how quickly I would go through a large jar. I was even lucky enough to have a Maya woman deliver fresh ground yellow ginger to my door every couple weeks or so.
I brought a big jar back to the US when I left, and promptly devoured it, and now I'm keeping steady pressure on the supply at my local health food store. Really, I'm not sure if my heavy use of turmeric is a problem. For one, my skin, lips, nails, and hair are not turning orange. I figure that's a good sign. And further, I've been seeing some interesting studies on turmeric get published in the journal Phytomedicine*. Scientists have found that curcumin, the principle active ingredient in turmeric, is effective in a wide array of functions, including: the inhibition of cell growth in cancerous tumors, a synergistic effect with antibiotics on drug-resistant Staph infection, and its emergence as treatment and prevention of gastrointestinal diseases. Other studies have shown that curcumin possesses many beneficial biological activities, including antioxidant, antimicrobial, antitumor, and anti-inflammatory properties. All of this evidence indicates that turmeric is perhaps one of the greatest examples of food as medicine.
And so I continue with my turmeric habit, comfortable with its many health-promoting properties as a part of my daily diet. Just today, I made an omelette that was more orange than yellow. I still remember fondly a day in Belize when I was on a tour of a rural Maya farm. This farm was more like a cultivated jungle, and as we walked through the rainforest, the gregarious Maya farmer was excitedly pointing out and offering samples of all kinds of treats he had growing. Then we came across the yellow ginger patch, and he pulled up a piece for us. Covered in dirt, at first it looked like any other piece of ginger I had seen (think ginger root in the grocery store), and then he broke a piece open. The bright orange color had me amazed that nature could produce such vivid hues. He offered a piece to chew, and my mouth numbed right up with the intensity of the fresh root. That experience made me feel even more connected to this natural medicine, and now it feels like I'm visiting an old friend every time I taste it. I'm a turmeric junky, but I've made friends with my habit, and I think you should too.
*Phytomedicine is a journal behind a paywall (which means you have to pay a hefty fee for access to their articles if you don't belong to a library that subscribes). I have the articles I linked and a few others, and would be happy to share if anyone is interested.