The first time I came across the beverage at a chic London coffeeshop a few years ago, I goggled in disbelief. Turmeric latte, described in rather grand terms as “golden milk” (almond or coconut, of course) with a hint of cinnamon and black pepper, sweetened with agave syrup and… At that point, I stopped reading. Partly because I caught sight of the rather startling price. And partly because I could almost hear the delighted chuckles of thousands of Indian grandmothers.
I was briefly transported to my childhood, to memories of my mother trying to cajole and coerce me into drinking a glass of warm milk mixed with a pinch of turmeric powder and sweetened with refined white sugar – no nut milk or natural sweeteners there. Without much effort, I can still recall the vile residual mouthfeel – it is only as an adult that I learned to describe the taste of turmeric in words like “pungent” and “peppery” – of turmeric milk, or haldi doodh as Hindi speakers in India know it, and palile manjal as my mother called it in our language Tamil. She was likely trying to soothe my sore throat or calm my feverish body with what many Indians still consider a liquid panacea.
In India, turmeric is much more than an unassuming kitchen spice
The West has discovered turmeric only in the last decade or so and has lost no time in touting it as a “superfood”, adding fresh turmeric root to tea and coffee, in tall cold shakes and tiny potent shots.
Since that first encounter in London, I have found turmeric-laden beverages in (mostly hipster) cafes and coffee shops everywhere from San Francisco to Melbourne. But in India, turmeric has been a staple kitchen ingredient for a long time, used both in its original rhizome or root form, and, more commonly now, in powdered form. My own masala dabba (box containing seasoning and tempering ingredients) has always had turmeric powder amid the mustard seeds, fresh cumin and chilli powder – as my mother’s did and her mother before that.
Turmeric is used mainly as a colouring agent in traditional Indian cooking, especially in curries and gravies. Fresh and tender turmeric root is also made into haldi ka achar (turmeric pickle), which is tempered with heated oil on top, and in a few communities, the leaves are used as steaming “envelopes” for foods. Food writer and author of The Flavour of Spice, Marryam Reshi told me, “I used to grow turmeric in my home in Goa so that I could make a local sweet called patholyo (also patoleo or patholi). Coarsely ground rice is mixed with black jaggery and then steamed between two turmeric leaves; that is what gives it a unique floral flavour.”
You may also be interested in:
• Are there benefits to eating turmeric and other spices?
• India’s little-known Mizo tribal cuisine
• The berry that keeps Asia looking young
Curious to know if turmeric has a place in contemporary Indian cooking, opposed to just traditional cooking, I spoke to Thomas Zacharias, executive chef at Mumbai’s popular restaurant The Bombay Canteen that prides itself on using only fresh and local ingredients. Zacharias described turmeric as a “background ingredient with minimal flavour or taste”. He added, “I think most people in India use it out of habit, rather than with any thought about what value it adds to a dish.” Zacharias himself likes to cook with fresh turmeric as a star ingredient whenever possible, like in his version of the Kerala fish curry known as meen moilee.
Turmeric, which is from the same family as ginger, is cultivated in several states in India, with the country accounting for more than 75% of the world’s production, according to the Financial Express. India is also the largest exporter and consumer of turmeric. The warm and humid southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu are particularly known for mass cultivation and superior quality of the crop. Planting takes place between May and August, depending on the region, and the crop is harvested from January on for a couple of months.
It is not surprising then that in the Tamil harvest festival of Pongal in mid-January, fresh turmeric leaves and roots are tied to the mouth of the ceremonial pot in which milk is boiled, indicating abundance. For in India, turmeric is much more than an unassuming kitchen spice, assuming a significant place in culture.
Among many Hindu communities, turmeric is used in festive occasions like weddings as a marker of fertility and prosperity. The pre-wedding haldi ceremony, for instance, involves family elders applying turmeric paste on the faces of the bride and the groom in a blessing-meets-beauty ritual. The taali or mangalsutra (a thread tied around the bride’s neck by the groom to formalise the marriage) is often a thick woven thread dipped in turmeric water; and even now, clothes worn on auspicious occasions (including weddings) have a touch of turmeric powder in some corner. Also, Indian women have always added a pinch of turmeric to their homemade face packs, believing that it leaves the skin clear and glowing.
Reshi explained that while most common spices were brought into the country by explorers and invaders (chilli from South America and cumin from the Eastern Mediterranean region, for instance), turmeric is native to India. “It is our spice, as no other spice is,” she said, “the way we have embraced it so heartily, and the faith we have in its healing properties can come from only millennia of familiarity.”
When I checked into a reputed Ayurveda hospital in Kerala for a chronic pain condition 10 years ago, I was immediately put on a treatment of manjakizhi, or turmeric poultice, along with the other remedies of massages and medicines. As the senior physician explained it then, Ayurveda states that turmeric helps in reducing inflammation and therefore pain
From applying a turmeric paste over sprained ankles to sniffing a smoked rhizome clump to ward off a cold, many Indians use turmeric as a home remedy, and it has been used in the traditional medical system of Ayurveda for centuries.
“Turmeric is the only medicinal ingredient that is used to treat all the doshas, to balance vata, pitta and kapha,” said Dr Isaac Mathai, founder of Bangalore’s Soukya Holistic Health Centre, referring to the three energies that Ayurveda believes every human body is composed of. As well as anti-inflammatory benefits, there is also a belief that turmeric contains antioxidant and antiseptic properties, though all these healing powers are as yet unproven by scientific research.
Turmeric gets both its bright yellow colour and its purported health benefits from the chemical component called curcumin. One theory is that curcumin’s efficacy is boosted by the way it is fried in oil in Indian cooking. “Curcumin is a fat-soluble compound, combining turmeric with fats enhances the absorption of curcumin than eating it in a water-soluble form,” said nutrition expert and author of The Everyday Healthy Vegetarian, Nandita Iyer. Which if true, it would be music to my ears. It means I can say no to haldi doodh without any guilt, while binging on spicy and oily haldi ka achar.
As for those who shell out big bucks for a turmeric latte at a hipster cafe, though, be warned that it may not address all ills. Perhaps they would do better to think of it as a warm and cosy pick-me-up, rather than a panacea.
Ancient Eats is a BBC Travel series that puts trendy foods back into their ‘authentic’ context, exploring the cultures and traditions where they were born.
Join more than three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "The Essential List". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.