Turmeric is a beautiful spice that imparts a delicious, earthy note to food at the same time as it gives a beautiful, golden color. From pre-history to today, turmeric - and its varied uses - have been seen all over the world. In this article, we’re going to share some of the more interesting uses that we’ve found in our research.
Dye first, food second?
This was the most surprising of the facts that we discovered during the course of our research. Primarily, turmeric was used as a dye in a number of Asian cultures. Upon seeing the beautiful golden yellow color that turmeric has, it’s easy to understand why this was the case. However, we’ve only ever known it to be used as a spice, so we were baffled by this revelation.
As we researched more, we discovered that turmeric has a similar, but much more advanced usage in science! It can be used as an indicator in chemical experiments, to determine the rough pH of a solution. When dissolved in a solution with a neutral pH, turmeric will maintain its natural, yellow color. However, when a basic solution (one with a high pH) is added, the turmeric will rapidly change color to a bright red! This small piece of science is used in a number of homes worldwide to nurture an interest in science with young children who can’t yet handle more dangerous indicator chemicals.
A rich history of use as traditional medicine.
Turmeric has a wide range of well known medicinal properties. This properties were known about deep into history, and turmeric features prominently in Ayurveda, Siddha medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, Unani, and the animistic rituals of Austronesian peoples.
In India, the spice was traditionally used for a number of ailments, most notably disorders of the skin, upper respiratory tract, and digestive system.
In the modern-day, there have been extensive studies done to determine the true medicinal properties of turmeric. We now know that turmeric is a valuable dietary supplement for a number of conditions, from arthritis to liver disease. Turmeric also has well-documented abilities as a primitive painkiller, much like the properties present in willow bark, which is a key ingredient in the manufacturing of aspirin.
This history of being used medicinally is doubly valuable now that we know for certain that the spice does have healing properties. As much as there is a large amount of alternative medicine that has been utterly debunked by modern science, there are also a lot of traditional remedies that may still have value. Turmeric is a great example of the best outcome for a traditional remedy: we know for certain that it has true medicinal value, and we also know that it’s safe to use thanks to centuries of it being prescribed to sick patients.
Widespread growth indicates people independently, deliberately cultivated it for centuries!
The turmeric plant is native to India and was spread throughout southeast Asia along with Hinduism and Buddhism. The plant was used to dye the robes of monks and priests in those religions, so it has been deliberately cultivated in any number of places all over Asia.
There is also a surprising offshoot of the turmeric plant which was found in Tahiti, Hawaii, and Easter Island before European contact. This means that the Europeans (who ordinarily may have spread the turmeric plant through journeying between islands) did not spread this plant. Instead, it was likely independently domesticated in all of these separate places!
This event really impressed us when we stumbled across it in our research. It indicated that the plant was native to a whole host of regions the world over, and it’s healing properties were so easily discoverable as to ensure it would be tamed from a wild plant into an easy to grow domestic plant. This type of domestication definitely happened in India, and historians have been able to figure out that it likely also occurred in Polynesia and Micronesia. They know this as those civilizations had no contact with India whatsoever, but the turmeric plant was still heavily relevant in their societies.
Furthermore, there is also linguistic and circumstantial evidence than that Austronesian peoples spread turmeric into Oceania and Madagascar. Spreading a plant to Madagascar is a particularly impressive feat, given the parallel evolution that occurred on the island - animals on Madagascar didn’t evolve into apes, but instead into lemurs. This happened because the island was so isolated when compared to other mega-continents, and it makes the spread of turmeric to the island all the more unlikely and noteworthy.
Westwards domestication, even in ancient history!
A huge number of spices and herbs made their way inexorably westwards owing to the enormous empires commanded by Europe in medieval times. While turmeric does have its place in that story, it was also found to be journeying westwards even before those times.
There is evidence that Assyrians used turmeric as a dye plant during the 6th century BC! Owing to the colour of the plant, this fact isn’t particularly surprising, but it is impressive considering the distance between Assyria and turmeric’s native India. Assyria was in what is now northern Iraq, and while you can catch a flight between Iraq and India nowadays, you certainly couldn’t in ancient history. According to google maps, the fastest route between India and Iraq is roughly three thousand miles! In a time before planes, that’s a walk that would last nine hundred and sixty-three hours. That’s certainly a long trip, which makes the journey for turmeric all the more impressive.