In this the 21st instalment of the continuing series, Food for Thought/ Grow & Eat Local, we focus on turmeric, Curcuma longa, a herbaceous perennial plant belonging to the ginger family, Zingiberaceae.
Here in Trinidad, turmeric is referred to as hardi which is a distortion of the word haldi, derived from the Sanskrit haridra. It is also erroneously labelled and sold as saffron which is a totally different spice obtained from the stamens of the crocus flower. Like saffron, turmeric also yields a bright yellow colour to food, hence it being locally referred to as saffron.
Food for Thought/Grow and Eat Local seeks to inform about the 149 crops that are grown in T&T (not counting the varieties within many of them). These crops are depicted on two charts with a photo of each crop in alpha order giving the local and scientific names and were sponsored by First Citizens. The model has been duplicated in Barbados, St Lucia and St Vincent, and efforts are underway to do so in Jamaica and Guyana. Copies have been distributed to all schools and libraries. For information regarding their availability: email fruit[email protected]
Here in T&T, we tend to gravitate towards fruits and foods that are not local. Estimates are that our food import bill is near TT$5 billion annually, about 85 per cent of our food intake, most of it processed and high in artificial additives and sugar and salt.
Did you know that in the 1960s the Macqueripe/Tucker Valley was once lush with citrus and banana fields producing more than enough to supply the nation? In other fertile areas of the country other crops were prolific. Oil centricity, industrialisation and non-agricultural business have essentially put paid significantly to the agricultural sector.
It is critical that we as a nation engage and support the resurrection and revival of local food production (eg in schools) and consumption. As a country, we must place greater emphasis on food sovereignty as a matter of urgent attention.
Turmeric is widely cultivated throughout the tropics. It has been used in Asia for thousands of years and is a major part of Siddha medicine. It was first used as a dye, and then later for its medicinal properties and for cosmetic purposes.
In the 13th century, Marco Polo wrote of this spice, marvelling at a vegetable that exhibited qualities so similar to saffron. Turmeric is considered holy and has been used in various Hindu ceremonies for centuries where it remains popular in India for wedding and religious ceremonies. Like in India, these traditions have taken 'root' in T&T and turmeric is also used in Hindu religious ceremonies including wedding ceremonies.
Like ginger, turmeric plants are harvested for their rhizomes (underground stems). When not used fresh, the rhizomes are boiled for about 30�45 minutes and then dried in hot ovens, after which they are ground into a deep-orange-yellow powder commonly used as a spice in Asian cuisines and as a main component of curries. It is also used for dyeing and to impart colour to certain food preparations.
One active ingredient found in turmeric is curcumin, which has a distinctly earthy, slightly bitter, slightly hot peppery flavour and a mustardy smell. Turmeric rhizomes are used as a bright yellow-orange culinary spice. The rhizomes can be cured for use as a spice by boiling and steaming. They can also be boiled in water, dried, peeled and then ground.
Turmeric is an important yellow food dye and is added to many Indian dishes including curries. Turmeric is a main ingredient of curry powder and ground rhizomes are used to make turmeric oil that is used in the industrial production of flavouring for curries.
In Grenada, the traditional "oil down" (made with breadfruit) has a yellow finished colour obtained from the use of turmeric. Powdered turmeric is also available from Grenada.
It is a very easy plant to grow at home, one clump is sufficient to provide the home with fresh haldi. It is an upright perennial herbaceous plant that reaches up to one metre tall and produces highly branched, yellow to orange, cylindrical, aromatic rhizomes. Turmeric only reproduces via its rhizomes. Turmeric is ready for harvesting seven to ten months after planting, when the lower leaves turn yellow.
Harvesting is carried out by digging up the rhizomes. Leafy tops are then cut off and the roots and adhering earth are removed. Rhizomes are then washed. Turmeric requires temperatures between 20 and 30 �C (68 and 86 �F) and a considerable amount of annual rainfall to thrive.
Another indicator of when the rhizome is ready for harvest is the appearance of these rhizomes above the soil level. Once these rhizomes are harvested some are retained for replanting as a future crop. It is recommended that rhizomes be air dried before planting. If planting in the ground, dig deep and aerated soil well, add manure and prepare a mound.
Plant unbruised rhizomes about 15-30 cm apart and at least five cm below soil level. If planting in a large pot, use well drained soil. Unlike its cousin ginger, turmeric prefers to be grown in full sunshine and must be well watered.
In Ayurvedic practices, turmeric has been used to treat a variety of internal disorders, such as indigestion, throat infections, common colds, or liver ailments, as well as topically to cleanse wounds or treat skin sores. Basic research shows extracts from turmeric may have antifungal and antibacterial properties.
Turmeric is under study for its potential to affect human diseases, including kidney and cardiovascular diseases, arthritis, cancer, irritable bowel disease, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, and other clinical disorders.
Externally, the dried rhizome has been applied to fresh wounds and insect stings and to help the healing process in chickenpox and smallpox. Inhalation of turmeric smoke is reputed to relieve hiccups. Turmeric rhizomes have also been mixed with other plants to produce traditional remedies for a range of conditions including tonsillitis, headaches, wounds, snake bites, stings, sprains and fractured bones.
Turmeric is not widely used in Western medicine, but has been investigated as a treatment for some conditions. Studies show that the rhizomes contain compounds that may have therapeutic effects, which appear to support some of its uses in traditional medicine. Here in Trinidad, turmeric tea (made from fresh grated turmeric rhizomes) is drunk to assist with the healing of internal wounds while a paste can be applied to the skin for the healing of external wounds.
Commercial cosmetics containing turmeric are now widely available in Trinidad from face washes to toothpaste.Turmeric paper, also called curcuma paper or in German literature Curcumapapier is paper steeped in a tincture of turmeric and allowed to dry. It is used in chemical analysis as an indicator for acidity and alkalinity.
India is the world's largest producer, consumer and exporter of turmeric.
Visit the Ministry of Agriculture, Land and Fisheries' website at
This series is written in collaboration with Cynthra Persad, retired director of Research, Ministry of Agriculture. For information on acquiring copies of the 2 Crops of T&T charts, email fruit[email protected]