Have you ever wondered why that curry takeout you love to order always ends up turning your dishes yellow?
The culprit is probably turmeric powder, a fragrant spice used in cooking as both a flavoring and coloring agent. It’s typical of savory cooking in the Indian subcontinent and Asia, where it is also known for its role in traditional medicine as an anti-inflammatory, among other applications.
Though contemporary scientific studies have yet to fully verify the medicinal properties of turmeric, word of its purported health benefits has spread in Western culture in recent years. It is now a popular ingredient in smoothies and juices along with its family member ginger. Some trendy cafés serve lattes (or “golden milk”) flavored with turmeric.
Beyond its recent fad use as a health supplement, turmeric has a ton of applications. Use it to cook dishes that are as flavorful as they are colorful. Read on to find out more.
What Is Turmeric?
Turmeric, or huáng jiāng fěn (黄姜粉), comes from the same family of rhizomes (root plants) as ginger and their lesser-known cousin galangal. The plant is native to Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. It’s unsurprising that it frequently makes an appearance in the cooking of these regions.
When fresh, the roots of turmeric have a pale woody exterior and a vibrant yellow-orange interior. Turmeric’s aroma is sharp and earthy, and its flavor is pepper-y and bitter, much like that of ginger.
The powder is made by boiling and then baking the fresh roots in a hot oven to dry them out. The dried roots are then ground, resulting in a fine powder with a milder (but still intense and musky) fragrance.
How to use Turmeric Powder
Perhaps the most common use for ground turmeric is in making curry powder, which owes most of its vibrant yellow color to it.
Curry powder usually blends turmeric powder with spices like chili powder, fenugreek, cardamom, and cumin, to create a powerful flavor profile that has long been used to replicate the richness of traditional Indian and Southeast cooking. Check out our article on curry powder to find out more about its flavor and uses.
Along with curry dishes, turmeric powder shows up in many staples of Indian or Southeastern Asian cooking. We marinate our Tandoori Chicken for hours with turmeric powder, cloves, garam masala, and other fragrant ingredients, resulting in some of the most flavorful and tender chicken to ever grace our palates.
To create our version of the Malaysian classic Beef Rendang, we layer turmeric powder with aromatics such as star anise, galangal, and makrut lime leaves.
Turmeric powder is not a super common ingredient in Chinese cooking. However, we do use it to prepare classics like Chicken Egg Foo Young and Egg Drop Soup.
We also add a dash to the frying batter for our easy Sweet and Sour Fish Fillet Stir-Fry.
Turmeric powder also helps create the perfect flavor and color in our recipe for Shrimp Fried Rice. It’s so simple and tasty that you might even swear off of takeout for good.
Because turmeric powder has a bright golden hue and relatively mild flavor, you can use it as a food coloring. It is actually the secret ingredient in our recipe for the perfect yellow cake. No extra egg yolks or artificial dye needed.
The color of turmeric is very vibrant and can stain even in small amounts. In other words, your leftover Chicken Curry might leave your tupperware container with a slight yellow glow. (Don’t worry, it will wear off after a few washes.)
Buying & Storing
Find turmeric powder in the spice and seasoning aisle of most supermarkets. However, we recommend checking out the spice section at your local Asian or Chinese grocery, if you’re lucky enough to have one nearby; their selection is likely to be less expensive.
Store ground turmeric in an airtight container away from direct heat and light. Like most ground spices, turmeric powder will stay fresh for up to 1 year, after which the flavor and fragrance will start to fade.