The bright gold of turmeric along with its musky odour and pungent, slightly bitter and peppery flavour make it a key Indian spice. A member of the ginger family, in the past I never thought much about how it got from its tuberous form to the fine powder that lights up my masala daba (spice box).
That is, until one day last year when I was trekking in the Himalayas and came across a family harvesting their turmeric crop.
Turmeric has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory properties and can stimulate the immune system. Its active ingredient, polyphenol curcumin is being investigated for treatment in a wide variety of medical conditions. My own beloved Indian cooking mentor, Noorbanu Nimji, stirs a half teaspoon into a cup of hot water and starts each day drinking it.
When I was in South India a few years ago, my friend Mr. Abraham showed me how to recognize the broad green leaves of the turmeric plant. He even dug up one of the roots so I could see it in its fresh form, straight from the earth. But, again, I really never thought about what it took to process it thereafter.
Then one morning last November when I was staying at Ananda in the Himalayas, I got up early to do a guided trek and was delighted when that found our group winding through a few small villages and farms – one of which was harvesting turmeric.
As we left the resort, the only traffic on the road was a lone white – undoubtably sacred – cow who paid us no heed whatsoever. Off the main road and onto narrow foot paths slippery with morning dew, we rose steadily. The only people we met were women carrying water. Some women in India – especially in the arid areas of Rajasthan – walk over 1500 kilometres each year to secure water for every day use. Imagine how frugal you’d be with water if that was your lot in life.
A couple of hours into the hike we came around a corner and noticed a young boy pounding something with a small hammer on the concrete deck of a home clinging to the side of the steep hills. I thought at first he had a toy and was playing. Instead, he was hard at work processing the family’s turmeric crop.
The tools he had were crude.
But they must have been effective because he proudly showed us what he and his family had accomplished.
Some Indians in our group offered to buy some of the crop and he raced off to find his parents. His mother was delighted to sell to us and was well-prepared with a scale and carry bag.
Now every time, I spoon some turmeric into a masala or curry I think of this family and their industriousness.
We reached our destination, Sari Kunjapuri Temple, after another 20 minutes and a final climb of 200 stairs. We’d walked at a leisurely pace up hill for two and a half hours. The day was a bluebird beauty and we were rewarded with 360 degree panoramic views of the Himalayan mountain ranges.
I think that I’ll always remember the peaceful feeling of breathing in that fresh Himalayan air. I’m pretty sure the rewarding feeling of a morning well spent in robust physical activity will fade. But, I know that I’ll never, as long as I live, forget the turmeric farmers and how much work it takes to turn a tough tuber into a fine powder for cooking.
I try to imagine them, once the crop was dry enough, sitting with mortars and pestles and doing the necessary grinding. It makes me grateful for this great ingredient each and every time I used it. Awareness of the work involved truly helps me savour it all. A greater appreciation for turmeric is not what I thought I’d get out of a trek in the Himalayas of India but then, India always throws a few unexpected delights into each day I spend there.