As a kid in Northern India, Harsh Chawla remembers his mom treating cuts and burns with a mixture of ghee and turmeric.
When he returned to his hometown of Chandigarh to be married, family members slathered his face, arms and legs with a golden paste of turmeric and milk to purify and soften his skin.
And here we are in the kitchen of Chawla’s year-old restaurant Pukka, watching executive chef Kirti Singh add a spoonful of homemade turmeric paste to stir-fried green beans.
Singh could easily use turmeric powder in his signature dishes, but Pukka is all about using fresh ingredients, local where possible, for its modern take on traditional Indian cuisine.
“We’re 40 years behind!” says Chawla, who owns Pukka with sommelier Derek Valleau.
The ochre-coloured powder is the main ingredient in curry powder and the yellow in ballpark mustard. It’s ground from a thin-skinned tropical rhizome (root) in the ginger family and tastes like an earthy, peppery carrot with a woodsy aroma.
Chawla says every state and every religion in India has its own recipes and traditions around turmeric, but it’s a must in many meat, seafood and vegetable dishes.
A Gerrard Street grocer told me he eats it raw “because it’s good for your body.”
South Asians and Chinese have known about turmeric’s healing powers for 5,000 years, but we’re just catching up with studies demonstrating the powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of its secret ingredient, curcumin.
There is a downside, however. Ground fresh turmeric turns everything it touches — including clothes and plastic mini food processors — a brilliant yellow.
You have been warned.
Buy & Store
- I found organic turmeric from Peru at the Big Carrot, and the Indian variety, with fatter, orange-tinged roots, in Little India.
- Look for firm, heavy roots with a fresh, spicy fragrance.
- To store, wrap unpeeled root in a paper towel and refrigerate in plastic for two weeks. Or wrap tightly and freeze for two months.
- Wash root just before using. There’s no need to peel.
- Grated turmeric resembles shredded carrot. Grinding it to a paste adds a deeper yellow colour.
- To make paste, simmer root about 90 minutes in lots of water, then blend until smooth with a little water.
- Add fresh turmeric’s orangey-yellow colour and mild flavour to everything from rice to smoothies.
- Drop a pinch of fresh grated or powdered turmeric in boiling water with basmati rice or quinoa.
- Recipes calling for fresh ginger often love a hit of turmeric.
- Use the paste in sautéed vegetables, tofu and curry, including butter chicken.
- Add while cooking onions and tomato sauce.
- Grate into puréed soups such as carrot and cauliflower to add colour and flavour.
- Add grated turmeric or squeezed juice from a garlic press to scrambled eggs before cooking.
- If you don’t have expensive saffron for a recipe, substitute a pinch of turmeric.
- When a cold strikes, make turmeric tea with ginger, honey and spices.
1 or 2 whole turmeric roots, washed, unpeeled
1 lb. (450 g) thin green beans, trimmed
2 tbsp coconut or vegetable oil
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1/2 cup chopped red or yellow onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup freshly grated coconut (or buy shredded, unsweetened) + more for garnish
10 fresh curry leaves
1/2 tsp red chili powder or to taste (Deggi Mirch brand preferred)
1 tbsp turmeric paste
1 tbsp tamarind paste, homemade or store-bought
1/2 tsp kosher salt
Pinch black pepper
To make turmeric paste, bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Add turmeric. Lower heat and simmer about 90 minutes, until softened when pressed, adding extra water as needed. Drain.
Mash turmeric with mortar and pestle or blender, adding a little water to make a smooth paste. Reserve 1 tbsp (15 mL) for this recipe. Refrigerate extra in airtight glass container one week.
For beans, bring large pot of water to a boil. Add beans; return to boil and cook one minute. Remove with slotted spoon and plunge into ice water to stop the cooking and keep them bright green and crisp. Drain and set aside.
In large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Drop a few mustard seeds in oil. When they start to sputter, add remaining seeds and stir one minute. Add onion and garlic. Cook, stirring, two minutes or until onion begins to soften and become translucent. Add one-quarter cup (60 mL) coconut, curry leaves, chili powder and turmeric paste. Cook, stirring, one minute. Add reserved green beans and tamarind paste. Cook, stirring, until beans are coated with turmeric mixture. Add salt and pepper. Cook two minutes until beans are heated through.
Transfer to a serving dish. Garnish with more coconut. Serve immediately.
Makes four servings.