August is a month when turmeric leaves find their way into our food, especially with rice. Naivaidnya or Novidades, the celebration of the appearance of ear-heads of grain on the monsoon crop of rice, is a signal for celebrations. Whether offered to the Governor in the continuum of the tradition that began with Afonso de Albuquerque and the Gaunkars of Taleigao who sustained him and his sailors during the troubled days of the monsoon of 1510 AD, or to Shree Ganapati, the ‘People’s Lord’ and son of Parvati, rice is the focus of the season. The flavour is definitely turmeric or curcuma longa. To cut the long story short, turmeric is what makes our food and medicine.
Turmeric contains curcumin which has a strong anti-inflammatory action besides being a great anti-oxidant. It is also known to have anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties. It has been applied to cuts and wounds and finds application in ayurveda, siddha, unani and even Chinese medicine. We live a healthy life because turmeric is an ingredient of almost all our curries. If you drank milk ‘piyus’ as a child, it contained turmeric. A little turmeric powder is added to a hot cup of milk to control cough, cold and fever. Recent trials indicate that turmeric can reduce cirrhosis and perhaps help limit Type-2 diabetes.
Its paste is traditionally applied to the bride just days before the wedding and it is a part of the ritual of the spring festival of ‘Haldi-kumkum’. In August, it is the wrapper of the rice, grated coconut and jaggery sweet known locally as ‘Patolleo’ and steamed in all communities. The Catholics traditionally do it on India’s Independence Day which they also mark as the Feast of Assumption of Mary. Whatever the occasion, one cannot resist feasting on the healthy patolli wrapped in the turmeric leaf.
The saffron robes of Buddhist monks are more likely than not to have had turmeric as a dye. Paper strips steeped in turmeric extract can be used as pH paper. The colour changes from yellow in acidic and neutral solutions up to 7.2 pH to brown and reddish-brown in alkaline conditions with distinct colour change from 7.4 pH to 9.2 pH. It can be easily used in rural conditions where soil testing facilities with pH papers and/or pH meters are not available.
Turmeric is an herb that has an underground rhizome like ginger. It is a perennial and can be left in the ground beyond the season or for a few years. The sheathing leaf bases form a false stem-like structure as in banana plants. The rhizomes are branched and can be physically divided to use as ‘seed’ material for planting. The crop takes five to six months and the yellowing or withering of leaves is a sign that the crop is ready for harvest. The rhizomes are dug out, washed, the scales rubbed off, dried in sun or in hot air ovens and powdered as a condiment. In some areas the rhizomes are boiled in batches before drying and powdering. It is an easy to grow crop and get income from both leaves and the rhizomes.