Superfoods TM_IN_TURM_FI_006

Gold Spice

That golden jar of turmeric in your pantry can do more than you think — and it's super good for you.


It could easily be mistaken for a knob of ginger, or maybe even a bug. Inside, it exudes an orange hue brighter than any carrot. Its aromas are so pungent that they linger in your kitchen well after it’s gone. It stains everything it comes in contact with. And it’s quickly becoming the next golden ingredient.

Turmeric, a rhizome best known in its orange-yellow powdered form, has lately been breaking away from its secondary role as a component of curry powder and making a solo debut. It has long been valued as a coloring agent, but turmeric can do more than turn food yellow.

Yes, turmeric is one of those so-called “superfoods,” packed full of an abundance of attractive nutrients and health benefits. The superstar of spices, turmeric has been used in holistic healing to reduce symptoms of arthritis and aid digestive relief for years. Its powerful active ingredient, curcumin, has proven effective as an antioxidant, and has anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties as well.

Still, even in all of its golden dietary glory, turmeric doesn’t get much attention in the American kitchen. Rarely does it make its way onto our plates. Occasionally, the raw root is used to make a cold-pressed cleansing juice or the powdered spice is sprinkled on top of eggs. Beyond that and traditional Indian dishes, not many American home cooks have any idea what to do with it.

Just because turmeric is native to South Asia doesn’t mean you’re limited to preparing only foods from that area. You can make distinctly non-Indian dishes with it, too. Which is exactly what the Drexel Food Lab — a research group that works to develop recipes using underused and underrated ingredients — recently set out to do.

“Turmeric is usually an afterthought,” said Ally Zeitz, coordinator of the Drexel Food Lab, as she sliced turmeric root on a white cutting board. “Nobody thinks to use it too much unless you’re making a curry.”

“People call turmeric the poor man’s saffron,” said Jonathan Deutsch, professor and founder of the Food Lab, “but if you bulk up on it, you can use it for tastiness.”

A close relative of ginger, raw turmeric is a root shaped like a finger, much smaller than ginger’s bulky bulb. It’s widely sold in powder form — the result of the roots being boiled, dried, then ground. Turmeric is an extremely aromatic spice, with strong earthy scents of dried orange peel and grated ginger. It brings a slight bitterness and peppery kick to dishes, subtler than fresh chiles but warmer than black pepper.

Typically, turmeric is hidden in a spice blend. Rarely do you find it front and center. So to celebrate the rising superfood, members of the Drexel Food Lab focused on creating dishes that showcased turmeric instead of masking it. Its flavor profile naturally pairs with base ingredients like onions, potatoes, celery, and shallots, so worked well when it was blended with sweet potatoes into a soup, and with shredded potatoes to make a bright and vibrant turmeric latke.

Others took an unorthodox approach to cooking with it, marrying turmeric with flavors you wouldn’t normally think to put together. Using it as a companion to classic baking spices, like in the turmeric and apple scones, was unusual, but surprisingly successful. The sweeter elements in the scone really highlighted turmeric’s natural kick and richness. One of my favorite creations was mussels in a coconut and turmeric broth, which introduced exotic flavors to a classic French meal. The creaminess of the broth had the mouthfeel of clam chowder, but with a warming spice that I happily welcomed.

Despite not having much experience with turmeric, the group found it wasn’t too difficult a spice to cook with at all. “It’s not an ingredient like cayenne, where you have to worry about adding too much,” said Erika Ellefsen as she measured out a full tablespoon of the brightly colored powder.

You do still have to be careful when you cook with it. Turmeric is notorious for staining everything and anything — countertops, clothes, and fingers — so beware of what you touch in the process. “My cutting board is going to be yellow forever,” said Zeitz as she cleaned up her station. She then looked down at her yellow-stained white apron. “And I guess I’ll be throwing this out afterwards.”

But don’t avoid turmeric because you’re afraid to stain your kitchen. Take the opportunity to dig the brilliant yellow container out of your spice cabinet and sprinkle it into baked goods. If you see fresh turmeric fingers in the produce section, grab a few. At home, shred it into soups or on top of seafood. Sure, turmeric’s added health benefits are a perk, though it’s also a spice worth exploring for flavor alone.

Mussels in Coconut Turmeric Broth



Olive oil, to coat the bottom of the pan
2 shallots, sliced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
½ serrano chile, sliced
¼ cup turmeric root, peeled and minced
1 can coconut milk
1 cup vegetable stock
6 Kaffir lime leaves
½ cup cilantro, chopped
1 pound mussels, picked through and cleaned
1 tablespoon cilantro, for garnish
1 tablespoon serrano chile, sliced, for garnish
1 tablespoon turmeric root, sliced, for garnish
1 baguette, sliced
Salt and pepper


In a large sauté pan, heat olive oil. Add the shallots, garlic, serrano chile, and turmeric to the pan. Sauté until soft and season with salt and pepper. Add the coconut milk, stock, kaffir lime leaves, cilantro and bring to a simmer. Season with salt and pepper. Once ready to serve add the mussels and cook until their shells are open.

Slice the baguette, brush the slices with olive oil, and grill. Serve the mussels, garnished with minced turmeric, serrano chiles and cilantro, with the grilled bread.

Recipe by Ally Zeitz

Turmeric and Apple Scones



2 cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons butter, cold and diced
2 apples, small dice
¼ cup turmeric root, peeled and minced
1 cinnamon stick
4 cloves
¾ cup milk
¼ cup ground turmeric
½ cup sanding sugar


Preheat oven to 350˚F.

In a sauté pan, melt 2 tablespoons butter with cinnamon stick and cloves. Add the apples and minced turmeric and sauté until soft. Remove the cinnamon stick and cloves and drain remaining butter from the apples, then let them cool.

In a large bowl, mix flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together. Add the ¼ cup of butter and cut into the flour mixture until the pieces are small, about pea-sized. Add the apple mixture to the flour mixture and stir to incorporate. Pour in the milk and mix until a dough comes together. Turn the dough out onto a work surface and knead a few times. Cut the dough into triangles and place the triangles on a baking sheet, then brush with milk. In a small bowl, mix ground turmeric and sanding sugar, then sprinkle the mixture over the scones. Bake for 20 minutes.

Recipe by Ally Zeitz

Sriracha Marinated Shrimp Tacos with a Turmeric Coconut Crema



For the shrimp:
½ pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons sriracha hot sauce
1 cup lime juice
3 fresh limes, juiced
1 teaspoon each salt and pepper

For the slaw:
1 head red cabbage,shredded
1 head green cabbage, shredded
1 red apple, diced
1 green apple, diced
¼ cup olive oil
⅓ cup red wine vinegar
1 bunch cilantro

8 ounces coconut milk
½ cup Greek yogurt
⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoons ground coriander
2 turmeric roots, peeled and grated
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
Salt and pepper, to taste


Mix the lime juice, cayenne pepper, sriracha, salt, and pepper. Add the shrimp and marinate for at least 2 hours.

For the slaw, combine the shredded cabbage with the oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper, and marinate. Dice the red and green apple into ¼-inch cubes and place in acidulated water (water with lime or lemon juice) to prevent browning. Once ready to serve, drain the apples from the acidulated water and combine with the cabbage mixture.

To make the crema, combine coconut milk, Greek yogurt, cayenne pepper, coriander, grated turmeric root, ground turmeric, and salt and pepper to taste.

Cook the marinated shrimp for 4 to 5 minutes on each side and cut off tails. Assemble tacos, topping shrimp with crema and cabbage salad, and top with cilantro. Finish with the juice of a lime wedge.

Recipe by Erika Ellefsen

Sweet Potato and Turmeric Soup



½ cup olive oil
1 large onion, diced
1 leek, cleaned and sliced
½ cup turmeric root, peeled and minced
2 pounds sweet potato, peeled and diced
2 tablespoons siracha
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 quart vegetable stock
1 quart water
Salt and pepper
½ cup Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons ground turmeric


Heat olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pot. Add onion, leek, and turmeric. Let sauté until softened. Season with salt and pepper. Add sriracha, cumin, paprika, coriander and ginger, and stir to combine. Season with salt. Add the sweet potato and stir until the spices coat the sweet potatoes. Pour in stock and water and bring to a simmer. Cook until the sweet potato is soft and the stock has reduced half way and the soup has thickened slightly. Remove from the heat and puree with an immersion blender. Season with salt and pepper.

Mix Greek yogurt with ground turmeric and salt and pepper to taste. Put a dollop of yogurt in each bowl of soup, then sprinkle with paprika and ground turmeric.

Recipe by Ally Zeitz

Turmeric Latkes



2 cups russet potatoes, peeled and shredded
1 small onion, finely chopped
1-2 fresh serrano chiles, stemmed and finely chopped
3 tablespoons cilantro, finely chopped
½ cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 eggs, slightly beaten
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil, for frying


To prepare latkes, thoroughly mix potatoes, onion, serrano chiles, cilantro, flour, cumin, turmeric and eggs. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Once oil is hot enough, place rounds of latke mixture in the skillet and press down with a spatula to form a small disc. Cook until brown and crispy on each side, usually 3-5 minutes. Briefly drain on paper towel and serve with applesauce (recipe below) and sour cream.

Recipe by Dana Bloom

Homemade Applesauce


6 golden delicious apples, peeled and cored
1 teaspoon fresh grated ginger
1 teaspoon grated turmeric


Cut apples into large chunks and place in a pot to simmer. While apples simmer, mash and stir until desired consistency. Add spices to desired flavor.

Recipe by Dana Bloom

Photos by Julia Silva

Shelby Vittek is an award-winning food, wine, and travel writer. Her food writing has twice won awards from the Association of Food Journalists. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, The Smart Set, the Philadelphia Daily News, The Triangle and on and She is currently an MFA candidate at Rutgers. Follow her on Twitter: @bigboldreds.


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