This versatile and colorful spice, from the ginger family, goes in everything from curries to medical remedies.

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TURMERIC HAS BEEN used for centuries in Southeast Asia as both medicine and food. It is the principal spice in Indian cuisine and is widely used across other cultures. Medicinally, homeopathic advocates rely on turmeric for its beneficial healing properties. As of late, it has become the new “it” ingredient in a variety of cuisines.

Turmeric “root” is actually the rhizome (underground stem) of a plant in the ginger family, and bears a strong resemblance to ginger root. As a medicinal plant, turmeric is known for its potent anti-inflammatory properties, thought to reduce pain, quell arthritis and soothe upset stomachs.

The rhizome can be dried and ground into fine powder — this is the form of turmeric sold in spice shops across the world, and what gives curry its signature golden hue. Dried turmeric has an earthy, acrid quality to it.

As with most spices, the taste and flavor of turmeric will degrade over time.

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“There is an enormous difference when you source high-quality turmeric,” says chef Eric Johnson of Stateside, who purchases turmeric powder from Villa Jerada, a local importer of Moroccan specialty foods. That means it’s time to toss that old spice jar you’ve had sitting in the cupboard for years.

Johnson relies on turmeric powder for his Vietnamese curry blend, which he uses on braised pumpkin. The curry powder is cooked with coconut milk and spooned over fat pumpkin wedges. He serves it with toothsome tofu “skins” as garnish, along with a mound of fresh herbs.

Fresh turmeric root is slightly spicier and brighter-tasting than its dried counterpart. Juice bars long have incorporated turmeric juice into their menus for its curative properties, but now it’s also showing up in morning lattes. Juicebox, on Capitol Hill, cold-presses fresh turmeric and blends it with house-made date-and-pepita (pumpkin seed) milk, ginger, clove, cinnamon, cardamom, orange peel and black pepper — served warm. Black pepper often is added because it increases the bioavailability of turmeric. A shot of espresso is optional.

Fresh turmeric can be found at Asian markets and even some grocery stores, such as Fred Meyer. It can be grated, diced or juiced — though proceed with caution: Its intense color also makes for intense staining.

Seattle chef Ba Culbert, of Tilikum Place Café, grates fresh turmeric and blends it with rice and coconut milk to make delicate, golden-colored crepes. She cautions that everything that turmeric comes in contact with will stain — fingers, cutting boards, graters, counters, dish towels and more. Consider yourself warned.

 

Stateside Curry Powder

There is no “right” way to make curry powder, as every household has its own recipe. Feel free to take away or add spices as you like.

 

2 tablespoons turmeric powder

2 tablespoons coriander seed, ground

2 teaspoons star anise, ground

2 teaspoons ginger, ground

1 teaspoon cumin, ground

1 teaspoon white peppercorn, ground

1 teaspoon clove, ground

1 teaspoon cardamom, ground

1 teaspoon mace, ground (sub nutmeg)

1 teaspoon fennel seeds, ground

1 teaspoon fenugreek, ground

Optional 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper, if you like spicy

 

Blend all ground spices, and store in a jar. Curry powder can be stirred into any sauce, especially coconut-based sauces, as they do at Stateside, and can be blended into yogurt or cream. Toss a spoonful of curry powder with vegetables — at Stateside, they use steamed Cabochon squash. You can coat chicken, seafood, tofu and roast, as usual. Stateside’s Eric Johnson further offers, “If you’re into that kind of thing, add a big splash of fish sauce. And put herbs on top! Cilantro, Thai basil and scallion.”