My lifetime of experience with the trendy Western superfood that is a staple of my Indo-Guyanese heritage
By SANDRA SUKHAN
We’ve all heard about the benefits of turmeric, especially in the last few years. Some of us who have used the golden-hued spice our entire lifetime wonder what the big deal is – we already know the benefits. Others are hearing about turmeric for the first time and thinking it’s a brand-new power food. It all reminds me of the attention corn rows got when Bo Derek wore them in the movie 10. It’s another case of cultural appropriation. This “new” health food with a thousand uses has been a staple of Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine for thousands of years.
Turmeric has been a part of my life for my entire 62 years. Its beautiful richness and curative properties have been my silent protector, residing in my spice cupboard in the most ordinary of ways: in a spice bottle, slightly yellowed on the lid from the discolouration of using it so often.
This was not something I spent much time thinking about until quite recently, and by recently, in the last decade or so. Why? When my dad was diagnosed with cancer in 2006, I started researching foods that might be beneficial for people living with cancer. I came across many articles about the anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric and told my dad about it. When he was diagnosed with terminal cancer a few months later and given 6–18 months to live, he decided that he would use turmeric every day, cooked in dhall, which, in our Guyanese tradition, is a soup made from yellow split peas. My father ate a bowl every morning until the day before he passed away five years later.
Quite unlike the precious metal gold, turmeric is grossly underrated, but so much more valuable. Indeed, to overuse the phrase, it is worth many times its weight in gold. I won’t go into details of its botanical name and I won’t list the many healing properties that a simple search on the Internet can provide. Nor will I make authoritative health claims. Instead, I will tell you the story of my relationship with turmeric – of my experiences over many decades and the benefits my family and I have enjoyed from using this extraordinary spice.
As a child, I ate my fair share of dhall, fed to me, my brother and sister by my dad on Sunday mornings, even in our teenage years when we were fully capable of feeding ourselves. In traditional South Asian cuisine, dhall (also spelled dhal, daal or dal) is the name for any split pea or pulse and the dishes made with them. Dhall, Guyana-style, is made with yellow split peas, water, turmeric, toasted and ground cumin, salt, garlic and a tablespoon or two of vegetable oil. It’s cooked until the split peas completely disintegrate and become a souplike consistency. Two or three cloves of thinly sliced garlic and 1–2 teaspoons of whole cumin are toasted in about 2 tablespoons of oil and added to the dhall. Additional salt is added to taste. Dhall is often served over rice or in a bowl with roti (a type of Guyanese bread similar to pita bread) for dipping.
The dhall I grew up with was bright yellow from the turmeric. By the time my dad was done, his fingers were bright yellow too, as he used them as the utensil to feed us. In those days, there was no turmeric powder, so my mom would pound a dried chunk of turmeric root to add to the dhall. Dried turmeric root looks much like a dried chunk of ginger, and the fresh turmeric looks much like fresh ginger, except for the bright colour.
That’s how I first knew turmeric, dried and in a chunk. Curries and masala blends always included turmeric, and since dhall and curry were staples in our diets, I would guess I ate it every day.
Watching my dad eat dhall every day when he was living with cancer made me reflect on how turmeric and its healing properties had been an ever-present, yet taken-for-granted talisman in much of my life.
My earliest memory of the healing power of turmeric is when I was about eight or nine. I was riding my bike at dusk when a young man riding a donkey cart he had stolen came racing down our street at breakneck speed. The donkey was panting for breath. When he saw me at the side of the road, he veered away, but not fast enough. The axle of the cart hit the side of my leg and pitched me into the trench as my bicycle landed on my body.
I limped home where, as soon as I lifted my skirt, I saw that a giant bruise had developed on my outer leg. My mom sent me to have a shower while she hurriedly made a poultice of ground turmeric, grated fresh aloe, flour and coconut oil. She patted the yellow paste on the bruise, covered it with a piece of warmed banana leaf and wrapped the poultice in a piece of cotton to keep it in place.
Turmeric stains everything it comes in contact with, so the banana leaf served the dual purpose of keeping the poultice in place and preventing the mixture from staining my nightclothes and sheets.
I went to bed that night with a painfully throbbing leg and woke up the next morning with a huge yellowish-purple bruise.
The poultice application was repeated by my mother over the next few days. Within a short time, the bruising disappeared. The turmeric poultice had been applied to draw the clotted blood to the surface so the wound could heal faster, and it did. Within a few days, the pain had subsided substantially and, aside from the yellow discolouration on my leg and some of my clothes, I felt better.
Fast forward to about 30 years ago. I had moved to Canada and been introduced to the wonders of Western medicine. I discarded any use I had for turmeric, except for my favourite dhall. I entirely bought into the notion that anything herbal like turmeric, bush tea, cinnamon, mustard oil, ginger or cloves was primitive.
Then I got a cold I could not shake, which finally settled into a dry cough for about six weeks. My dad, who must have been tired of hearing me hacking away, said quite sternly that I ought to make some halwa. By that he meant the concoction of herbs and spices, including turmeric, which I knew from childhood to be given to new mothers to help with the discharge of “old blood” from childbirth. I was having no such thing, because I had Western medicine on my side – and besides, I really didn’t like the taste of halwa.
Another week passed, and my father beseeched me to get over my stubbornness and let my mom make some halwa because I was still coughing so much. I relented, and she made the halwa.
Most people eat halwa in half-cup portions. But after I brought mine home, I gagged a few times trying to down just a few teaspoons. The next morning, I continued the ritual of gagging down a few teaspoons until the entire amount was consumed over several days. In the process, my cough disappeared.
Ever since that experience nearly 30 years ago, whenever I get a cold, halwa is my go-to remedy. It is natural, has amazing anti-inflammatory properties and stops the chest pain of endless coughing. I have made it for my daughters, granddaughters and my husband whenever he is starting to get a cold which can quickly get bronchial.
Turmeric capsules are sold in health food stores, but they can be awfully expensive, especially if you want to take several every day. I got creative one day in my kitchen and came up with my version of a capsule. I mixed about ¼ cup of turmeric powder with 1 tablespoon of ground black pepper (this helps with the absorption of curcumin which is the active ingredient in turmeric), 2 tablespoons of honey (turmeric is very bitter on its own) and enough ghee (clarified butter) or peanut butter (if you are not allergic to nut products) to bind it into a soft paste. I spread the mixture on some plastic wrap, folded over the plastic wrap so the entire mixture was covered, flattened it to about the thickness of a tablet and put it in the freezer. When it was almost frozen, I unwrapped it, cut it into capsule sizes and stored it in a resealable container in the freezer.
Whenever I need, I simply pop one or two of these homemade capsules into my mouth with a drink of water and it goes down quite easy.
Another way to use turmeric is to add some of the spice to warm milk with some black pepper and honey and drink it as a beverage. Some people call this “golden milk.” I just call it gold. Actually, it is so much better than gold, and it’s hiding in plain sight. Indian brides use it as a skin brightener when they are preparing for their wedding day. What could be better than that?
Turmeric is an all-rounder. It is used for joyous occasions, like weddings and births. It is used as a poultice for aches and pains. It is used as a nourishing spice in cooking. And it is used for Hindu religious functions. I dare anyone to tell me gold is that good. Turmeric is as good as gold, only better!
Winnipeg writer Sandra Sukhan was born and raised in Guyana. She recently published a cookbook of some of her favourite recipes, including traditional Guyanese food. To order a copy of Comfort Food From Sandra’s Kitchen: Guyanese and Other Favourites, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 204-488-2628.