A plant with long graceful leaves growing out of an old oil can, tied to the balcony railing; the rim of a shiny brass pot adorned with a wreath of leaves and golden orange roots; a dried knob of turmeric sitting on the bathroom shelf alongside a rough stone—these are some of the search results my memory serves up when I think about turmeric.

Growing up in Mumbai, there was just enough space in the apartment balcony for a tulsi (holy basil) plant that my grandmother would religiously water each morning. Come the onset of winter, which was the season for fresh turmeric to make its appearance, a piece of the root would be stuck into another recycled can filled with soil. By January, just in time for pongal, the root would give out tall leaves. These would be pulled out and the bunch tied around the pot in which pongal was prepared. The leaves were again used the next morning to serve leftover pongal rolled into small portions to feed the crows, and a prayer would be said for the well-being of our siblings.

A small stone and a knobbly dried piece of turmeric were a fixture on the bathroom ledge in my grandparents’ home. Ammamma would wet the dried root and rub it on the stone. She would gently scrub this paste on her face and wash it off during bath time. According to her, this kept facial hair from growing and it also helped keep the complexion clear and glowing. If I must go by her radiant looks right until her last days, this turmeric bath ritual did her good. The turmeric root used for bath and beauty purposes is different from the one used in cooking. Called kasturi manjal in Tamil (Cucurma aromatica), this has a muskier aroma and is said to have a more pronounced bitterness than the one used in cooking, which is the Cucurma longa variety.

A turmeric forehead pack is my mother’s go-to home remedy to relieve a severe head cold or sinusitis. Turmeric powder is mixed with a little water in a spoon. This is heated over the flame of a lamp and stirred with a toothpick or match, until it thickens up. The paste while still hot is applied over the forehead and allowed to dry out. She says the relief could be from the heat of the paste combined with the healing properties of turmeric. Dried turmeric root can also be roasted over a flame until quite charred and then rubbed on a rough stone with a little water to get a paste which is applied similarly.

Over five years ago, I was at a chef’s table at the Jamavar restaurant in The Leela Palace, Bengaluru. I was chatting about seasonal foods for winters with chef Farman Ali and it was the first time I heard of haldi ka halwa. Fresh turmeric root is ground to a paste and fried in ghee. Sugar, dried fruits and nuts are stirred in and the mixture cooked until it reaches a fudge consistency. A YouTube search for this dish led me to similar recipes from Pakistan. Another interesting halwa, quite like the one the chef told me about, was from Bhojpuri cuisine. In this recipe, a paste made from equal parts fresh turmeric and ginger is fried in a mix of ghee and mustard oil to which crushed jaggery is added and continuously stirred. I’m very curious as to how mustard oil would taste in a sweet recipe. The presenter in the video does say that this is more of a chyawanprash (Ayurvedic medicinal fudge prepared using a mix of herbs and spices) than a dessert.

I like to make the most of fresh turmeric during its short season. My favourite recipe is an instant turmeric pickle prepared by peeling and cutting the turmeric into juliennes. Pack this into a glass jar and top with ample lemon juice and salt. Zing it up further by adding ginger juliennes and slit green chillies. This keeps in the fridge for four-five days.

Carrot Pomegranate Turmeric salad

Serves 2

Ingredients

2 medium-sized carrots

1/2 cup shelled pomegranate

1 1/2 inch piece of fresh turmeric

2-3 tbsp chopped coriander leaves

1-2 tbsp lemon juice

1/4 tsp salt

2 tsp sunflower oil

1 green chilli, sliced

1/2 tsp cumin seeds

1/4 tsp turmeric powder

Finely chopped herbs or micro greens for garnish

Method

Peel and grate the carrots. Using orange carrots gives a good contrast to the colour of the pomegranates. Peel and chop the turmeric into juliennes.

In a bowl, mix the grated carrot, pomegranate, turmeric, coriander and lemon juice. Season with salt and toss to combine.

Heat oil in a small pan. Fry the chilli and cumin seeds until the seeds splutter. Turn off the heat and stir in turmeric powder. Transfer this over the salad and garnish with herbs or micro greens.

To make this salad a more substantial meal, add a handful of cooked red rice, millet or quinoa.

Spiced Turmeric Tea

Makes 2 cups

Ingredients

2 1/4 cups water

1/2 inch piece of fresh turmeric root

1/2 inch piece of fresh ginger

5-6 tulsi leaves

2 green cardamom pods

1 stick cinnamon

2 tsp honey

Pinch of rock salt

Method

Boil water in a small saucepan. Using a mortar pestle, coarsely crush the turmeric, ginger, tulsi, cardamom and cinnamon.

Add this to the boiling water and simmer for 3-4 minutes on a low heat.

Turn off the heat, cover the pan and allow to brew for 5 minutes.

Pass the tea through a sieve into two cups. Stir in honey and a few grains of rock salt. Drink it warm.

Use of cinnamon and honey helps balance out the slight bitter tinge of the fresh turmeric root.

Mint leaves can be used instead of tulsi.

Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer is the author of The Everyday Healthy Vegetarian.

She tweets at @saffrontrail

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