Turmeric, the miracle spice - fashionable or true?

Turmeric is trending right now is an understatement. People are trying to consume it in any and every form, dry, fresh, juiced or pickled. Is this just something that’s popular at the moment or there is truth in it.

As long as I can remember turmeric has been a staple in my diet growing up in an Indian household. Just like so many other spices I treated it very matter of fact as another masala (spice) that is widely prevalent in Indian curries without giving it much thought.

Until the last couple of years wherein there has be an explosion in its popularity and an aggressive enthusiasm to include it ones diet. That’s when I started taking note of it but still with some skepticism. Just like fashion trends food has its cycles too and I wondered if this is the next spice on the block that will fade in some time. But as it turns out that it has been pretty resilient and continues to pop up on several nutritionists blogs that I follow and Ayurvedic medicine papers. This got me to studying it a little to uncloak the myths and understand the reality.

It is a perennial plant of the ginger family which is native to India. You can use it fresh or dried, ground up in a powder form as is commonly used. It is available fresh in Indian grocery stores, Mexican stores and Whole Foods too. It is used in Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Persian,  Thai,Vietnamese, Cambodian and Nepali food to name a few. In fact a lot of Persian dishes use turmeric as a starter to caramelize onions with oil. It initially was used as a dyeing agent and robes of Hindu monks would be colored using this root. Not a very fast dye but it works. It stains! So careful on your granite counters and fabric.

The active ingredient which makes it good for you is curcumic. It is anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and an anti-oxidant. Wow that’s a lot. But a small overlooked fact is that curcumin is not well absorbed into the blood stream unless you consume it with black pepper which has a natural substance called piperine that enhances its absorption by 2000%!!! It is also fat soluble so would be much better if consumed with some sort of fat. Other than that it actually passes through your digestive tract almost completely.

It is supposed to help with arthritis, cancer, Alzheimer’s, acne etc. (it’s a pretty long list)

Growing up every time I had the flu I was given turmeric milk which I didn’t think of as anything special, except it worked. But oh man it does really work and can be tasty with honey, black pepper, cardamom, milk and turmeric.

I have seen people apply turmeric to open wounds and scars. Because of its antiseptic properties it is widely used in face packs as well. In fact in India there is a ceremony called Haldi (the Hindi name for turmeric) which is performed 2 days before the wedding. The guests smear a turmeric paste on the couple and it is supposed to give the newlyweds a glow and is auspicious.

Fun Facts:

Car mechanics in India will add a few teaspoons of turmeric in the radiator to temporarily block a leak.

If you sprinkle turmeric on a leech apparently it will remove itself.

 

That’s a lot of good karma it has going for itself. So trend or here to stay- I think its not going anywhere. Do you have any turmeric stories?

Is rubbing cucumbers an old wives tale?

I grew up in India and every time we cut cucumbers we had to cut off the ends and sprinkle it with salt and rub it. It brought out a white sticky sap. You are supposed to cut that off and rinse the cucumber. Voila the bitterness is gone!

Like many other things I attributed this to an old wives tale, until in 2 separate classes, 2 different students mentioned doing the same in Mexico. It got me wondering that it would be highly coincidental to have completely unrelated cultures follow the same practice. Of course on asking them I got the expected response that they were following what their grandmother did without knowing the reason.

I started doing some research, and lo and behold there is a reason. Cucumbers are members of the gourd family which produces a particular class of compounds called CUCURBITACINS which are bitter. These compounds are produced as a self-defense mechanism to protect themselves from being eaten. The compound tends to be concentrated at the ends. Hence you rub the ends, sprinkling the salt helps in extracting the white milky fluid that contains the cucurbitacins. By cutting off the ends of the cucumber you reduce the likelihood of getting the cucurbitacins to spread to the rest of the cucumber. Some say if you don’t cut off the end the bitterness gets rubbed back in.

Next question that came to mind was why some cucumbers are bitter and some not?

A couple of things determine the amount of bitterness in a cucumber. Another enzyme called elaterase hydrolyses to non-bitter compounds. Depending on environmental conditions the enzyme will vary with different varieties. Also if the cucumber grows with less water it tends to be more bitter. The bitter compounds are much less prevalent in the bred varieties compared to wild cucumbers. This makes sense because my cucumbers in the US are almost never bitter when bought at stores, but I have experienced bitterness in cucumbers from the farmers market.

Are cucurbitacins safe to eat and nontoxic?

Yes just not very appetizing.

This makes me wonder about all the different traditions that we follow and pass it off as superstition or habit. I am sure there is a science to most.

Does your culture have any?