How our grandmother’s secret ingredient has become popular globally

There’s plenty of research to support turmeric’s antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties, but turmeric is neither a miracle drug nor a supernatural phenomenon

turmeric 11I want to tell you that I don’t really believe in the magical properties of turmeric, that I was radicalized when I was only a child. Turmeric was prescribed to me weekly at my grandmother’s house in Nairobi — dumped into a pot of sweetened, simmering milk, or smushed with ginger powder and bronze, crystallized gur, the delicious raw sugar paste she bought in bulk and kept in old ice cream tubs with flimsy, warped plastic lids.

There was turmeric for a standard runny nose, the dizzy rush of a fever, the ache of moving away from my best friend. Turmeric for a breakout, a particularly tender, slow-to-heal bruise, the anxieties that kept me awake. Among family, where there was always pressure to talk lightly, and about cheerful things, a cup of hot, sweet turmeric milk pushed across the table seemed like a quiet acknowledgment of my grievances, however tiny, rather than a promise to obliterate them.

There’s plenty of research to support turmeric’s antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties, but turmeric is neither a miracle drug nor a supernatural phenomenon. It’s a pungent, gently bitter tropical plant, related to ginger, with bulky, bright orange roots that have been used for centuries in kitchens across Asia, including India, where it is known as haldi. Whether you cook with the fresh root or the more manageable powder, turmeric has the capacity to stain your clothes, skin and tongue a neon, nicotine yellow, so that you look as if you’ve been smoking in a very small airless room, uninterrupted, for the last 60 years.

All this makes turmeric an unlikely candidate for a trendy restaurant ingredient, but it has become one anyway, now telegraphing a specific brand of chic well-being, far removed from my Kenyan-Indian family. In the last few months, I had turmeric tonic on ice, and a fizzy turmeric kefir on tap. I sipped a peppery, turmeric-infused milk with my friend Sonia at a coffee shop in Los Angeles, and it cost a whopping $6.

“This is wonderful news,” my grandmother said. “Everyone should be having more haldi! But at that price, I hope the children are drinking haldi milk for free.”

I assured her they were not, and we joked about how fabulously wealthy my grandmother might become if she opened Haldi Queen, a shop that sold all things turmeric, including expensive cups of turmeric milk, customized according to what ails you. But in keeping with tradition, we did not talk about exactly what ails us.

Instead, I told her that I’d started a new habit of putting a little turmeric in my tea. It started off as a plain chai: a bag of black tea, boiled with ginger and milk. (She approved of this.) But a tiny spoonful of turmeric had become a kind of knock-on-wood at the end of the sentence, a completely superstitious move I just couldn’t shake. It tasted good too, especially if I added a little honey.

So I threw in whole peppercorns, cinnamon and a pod of green cardamom split open between my thumb and index finger. I grated nutmeg in once or twice. (She did not approve of the nutmeg.) I replaced the milk with almond milk and macadamia milk, and for a while with coconut milk, but in the end I went back to a mix of water and whole milk, which tasted infinitely better. I was working my way toward a remedy for an unspecified affliction.

This wasn’t the turmeric milk my grandmother made for me growing up, but my own concoction, a delicious, caffeinated, generously spiced hybrid, hot with grated ginger and sweetened with supermarket honey. It was an ideal wallop of warmth and spice on cold, dark mornings in New York, and I drank it with a sense of being fortified.

I knew, I told my grandmother that I could leave out the turmeric and the drink would be just as good, but I never, ever did. This was my morning ritual now, a five-minute tincture taken against the coming day. And sometimes I felt that if I drank it before anything had the chance to go wrong, maybe nothing would. “My God, it’s only haldi,” said my grandmother, clicking her tongue. “It’s not magic.”

Turmeric Tea

Turmeric milk is a simple infusion of warm milk with turmeric that exists with countless variations in homes across India, where it’s known as haldi doodh. The drink might include black pepper, and a touch of jaggery or honey to sweeten it. This hybridized version lies somewhere closer to a masala chai with a dose of black tea and a spoon of fresh grated ginger. The recipe makes two dainty portions, or one robust one, but it’s in the spirit of things to play with the ratios to suit your own taste, to use your sweetener of choice and even to replace the milk entirely with almond or cashew milk. Cooking with powdered turmeric is less messy than with fresh, and won’t require gloves to keep your fingers from staining.

turmeric tea

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup water
  • ½ teaspoon dried turmeric (or a 1/2-inch piece fresh turmeric, peeled and grated)
  • 1 1/2-inch piece ginger, peeled and grated
  • 1 cardamom pod
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 3 black peppercorns
  • ½ tablespoon honey
  • 1 cup milk (or nut milk)
  • 1 black tea bag

Preparation

In a small pan over low heat, add the water, turmeric, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, peppercorns and honey. Bring to a simmer, then pour in milk, and add the tea bag. When milk is steaming, use a spoon to taste, and add more honey if you like. Pour through a fine-mesh strainer right into a cup, and drink while hot.

Author: Tejal Rao

Source: The New York Times