What is Turmeric?
Also known as Indian saffron, turmeric is the dried underground stem or rhizome of the tropical plant Curcuma longa and belongs to the ginger family. Rhizomes are stems that grow horizontally and under the ground that set down roots and sends up shoots. These rhizomes are the part used either fresh or dried as a spice, or as a dye to color bodies and clothing for ceremonies surrounding marriage and death. It is also the major component of most prepared curry powders and is used extensively in many Indian and South Asian cusine.
To make the spice turmeric the rhizomes are steamed or boiled in slightly alkaline water to set the colour and the abundant starch pre-cooked and then dried either in the sun or in ovens. It is usually sold pre-ground, although fresh and dried rhizomes can be found in most ethnic markets.
The very first time I saw turmeric used as a dye was when we went to see the Theyyam, the traditional tribal ritulist dance of the Dravidians performed in the Kaavu or sacred groves in Kannur in Kerala. Here the bodies are painstaking painted using plant pigments and turmeric was one of them. Although used to the tribal dances of the Massai’s and Sukuma tribes in Tanzania, this was different. The particular one I first saw was the Kalichan theyyam where the man was dressed in this beautiful costume and body painted mostly with turmeric. As the drum beats increased to a crescendo and the percussion instruments reached a crescendo the man started his delirious dancing while wielding and brandishing his scary looking machetes around him, while I tried to make myself invisible by shrinking into my father’s side.