By Dr. Victor S. Sierpina
 
The warm, sunny, orange hue of turmeric is a common feature of Indian food, though it is underused as a culinary spice in the U.S.

According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal titled “Snow Day Superfood,” more chefs are discovering that the tangy “sour-bittery-lemony” flavor, fabulous color and health benefits makes it a rich addition to a large variety of foods.

It can add surprising notes to Italian food, beets, quinoa, veal, cauliflower, halibut and of, course rice, lentils, noodles, soups, stews and many more.

It may take a little experimentation to add it to your repertoire of herbs.

My usual favorite herbs include oregano, dill, rosemary, garlic, basil, thyme, red pepper and, of course, garlic, but not usually turmeric, except when an occasional recipe calls for it.

In my current annual quest to expand my cooking skills with new recipes every two weeks or so, I am looking to create more dishes with turmeric. Why?

Turmeric (curcuma longa) is a relative of the ginger family and has been used as not only a food but also a medicine for many centuries. It is what gives our regular mustard its bright yellow color.

Curcumin is the chemically active component of turmeric and has been the subject of many scientific studies, which have demonstrated its benefits as an anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer and anti-infective agent. Several studies on curcumin are ongoing at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

Studies of curcumin show it can inhibit certain types of cancer, delay liver damage and make cancer cells more vulnerable to the effects of chemotherapy and radiation.

It can also reduce symptoms of arthritis. The heavy use of curcumin in the diet may help explain the low rate of Alzheimer’s disease in India, where is its used extensively.

Among people aged 70 to 79, the rate of Alzheimer’s is less than one-quarter that of the United States.

A search for health benefits of turmeric on WebMD provides an extensive list of the ways turmeric has been used for health problems:

Turmeric is used for arthritis, heartburn (dyspepsia), stomach pain, diarrhea, intestinal gas, stomach bloating, loss of appetite, jaundice, liver problems and gallbladder disorders.

It is also used for headaches, bronchitis, colds, lung infections, fibromyalgia, leprosy, fever, menstrual problems and cancer. Other uses include depression, Alzheimer’s disease, water retention, worms and kidney problems.

Some people apply turmeric to the skin for pain, ringworm, bruising, leech bites, eye infections, inflammatory skin conditions, soreness inside of the mouth and infected wounds.

I am not sure how solid the research evidence for all these conditions is, but clearly turmeric has had a major role in healing for millennia. Some precautions are noted in that it can interact with blood clotting medicines and cause some people gastrointestinal upset. Though WebMD advises against medicinal doses of turmeric during pregnancy, likely the concentrated pill form, Indian women do not change their diet during pregnancy, according to my reliable Indian physician sources, so dietary turmeric is traditionally safe and widely used.

While turmeric-curcumin is available in a supplement form, is better absorbed in the gut with food, particularly if there is black pepper with it.

To deal with this issue, there are also supplements with black pepper in them to improve absorption.

The curcumin in turmeric is fat-soluble, which means it is better absorbed if you ingest it with dairy, butter, oil or other fats.

As a follow-up on my column last week on the Indian/Asian dish called dal, I have been looking for the necessary ingredients.

A colleague in the curriculum committee told me to go to the Ocean Food Store on University Boulevard, which stocks a broad variety of Indian foods, staples and spices.

The owner, Jake, was very helpful in answering my questions and in supporting my fledgling attempts at Indian cooking. Jake also stocks a nice variety of already-prepared Indian foods, frozen, boxed, bottled and canned, serving the high population of students and faculty we have from that part of the world.

I really think we need a good Indian food restaurant on the island.

We used to have a great buffet in the old Ramada Inn on 6th Street and Harborside Drive, but it vanished awhile back along with the building.

In any case, just for fun, try playing with turmeric in your recipes. It adds color, flavor and health to your life. And its not just for Indian food anymore.

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.