The Joy of Fresh Turmeric

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I have a long and uneasy relationship with turmeric, though it is an essential ingredient in just about every curry recipe ever written. I have always struggled to detect any flavour at all in anything but the very freshest ground turmeric, and even then it is so subtle I have to wonder: what is the point? Beyond giving a vivid yellow colour to a dish, it seems to me to be about as useful as saffron.

Ah, saffron. It may be heresy to some, but I don’t get saffron either. Again, it adds a lovely yellow hue to a dish, and it definitely has a flavour, but I just don’t like it. I’m not entirely convinced that anyone else really gets it either – I once saw a TV chef answer the question: “how much saffron should I use?”, with “how much can you afford?” I have a nagging suspicion that the very fact that it is so expensive is what attracts people to it. Like Ferraris and Lamborghinis, it has the aura of ‘status symbol’. Used in sufficient quantities to add flavour, to me it adds a medicinal edge to my cooking, while for my wife it brings to mind laundry that hasn’t been aired properly.

This isn’t about saffron though, it’s about turmeric, and to my joy (yes, joy, that is how easily pleased I am) I have recently been seeing fresh turmeric appearing on supermarket shelves alongside root ginger and chillies. Fresh turmeric is directly interchangeable with ground turmeric powder, and when used fresh it adds an earthy, bright and peppery – sometimes, almost fruity – flavour. For me, the first goal of a successful dish is its flavour, and fresh turmeric adds it in spades. My joy was doubled when I realised that fresh turmeric is the ideal replacement for saffron, adding colour, flavour and what can only be called ‘deliciousness’.

Ground turmeric still has its uses in my kitchen, mainly for its colour and ease of use when roasting vegetables and making rice pilafs. But now I have the choice I will always prefer punchy, fresh turmeric in sautés, sauces and smoothies.

Fresh turmeric is a rhizome (a fancy word for a root) that looks similar to ginger, which is a close relative. Like ginger, fresh rhizomes have a much livelier flavor than dried. Turmeric’s bright orange flesh is earthy, peppery, and slightly bitter. Depending on how old or tender it is, you may want to scrape off the peel before using it. Like ginger though, in 99% of cases I will leave the skin on and use a microplane or fine cheese grater before use.

As with all fruit and vegetables, always choose the freshest, firmest rhizomes and avoid soft, dried, or shrivelled ones. It can be stored in a fridge in a plastic bag or airtight container for a week or two, or you can freeze it, where it will last for several months.

The key question with any unfamiliar ingredient is: how much to use?

As a general rule of thumb:

1 inch of fresh turmeric, as thick as your forefinger = 1 tablespoon of freshly grated turmeric = 1 teaspoon ground turmeric

So when adapting a recipe, grate an inch of fresh turmeric to replace each teaspoon of dried specified in the recipe, and prepare to be amazed.

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