Turmeric (Curcuma longa) and several other species of the curcuma genus grow wild in the forests of Southern Asia including India, Indonesia, Indochina, nearby Asian countries, and some Pacific Islands including Hawaii. All of these areas have traditional culinary and medicinal uses going back to pre-history.
In the Indian Ayurveda system of herbal medicine, turmeric is known as strengthening and warming to the whole body. Traditional uses in India include to improve digestion, to improve intestinal flora, to eliminate worms, to relieve gas, to cleanse and strengthen the liver and gallbladder, to normalize menstruation, for relief of arthritis and swelling, as a blood purifier, to warm and promote proper metabolism correcting both excesses and deficiencies, for local application on sprains, burns, cuts, bruises, insect bites and itches, for soothing action in cough and asthma, as antibacterial and anti-fungus, and in any condition of weakness or debility.
Turmeric is eaten as a food both raw and cooked throughout Asia. While turmeric root looks much like ginger root, it is less fibrous and is more chewable, crunchy, and succulent. The fresh root (not the powder) has a somewhat sweet and nutty flavour mixed with its bitter flavour. As a result, it is not unpleasant to eat and not difficult to chew. It is sometimes chewed plain or chopped up and put in salads raw. Traditional use includes mashing/grinding it in a mortar to make a paste to mix with other spices for flavouring in curries. In modern times, the most common use is of the dried root powder as the base of most curries in India and other nearby countries.
Another traditional use of turmeric is as a food colorant and dye for cloth – in both cases a cheaper alternative to saffron. It was and is used in religious ceremonies and offerings – often representing life, purity, and prosperity.
Daniel B. Mowrey tells the story: “Serious research on turmeric began in Germany, in the early 1920’s. Sesquisterpenes in the essential oil of turmeric were isolated in 1926 and to them was ascribed the therapeutic activity. Later, a team of scientists compared the effects of whole extract, the essential oil, and the water-soluble extract. … In 1936, … curcumin was compared to whole extract and several isolated constituents.
The results of the experiment show that turmeric acts in the following ways:
• Turmeric stimulates the flow of bile; several constituents have this property.
• The increased flow of bile depend in part on the contraction of the gallbladder and in part on the increase in bile secretion;
• The stimulation of bile depends mostly on the presence of essential oil;
• The flavonoids cause the contraction of the gallbladder and thereby increase the effective emptying of this organ.”
“While studies were being pursued in European, primarily German laboratories, Asian researchers were independently validating the same properties of turmeric. But their interest extended to the liver protective and curative principles of turmeric and in a series of brilliant papers they reported important findings in that area. 2
… So far what has clearly been demonstrated is that turmeric possesses anti-hepatotoxic activity on the order possessed by other liver-protective herbs such as milk thistle and liquorice. … Other research has helped establish the effects of turmeric on the blood. For example, as many of the common curry herbs do, curcumin prevents large fluctuations in blood cholesterol after meals. … The potent anti-inflammatory activity (in the essential oil and in curcumin) of turmeric has been substantiated in other research. Like other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents (such as liquorice root), curcumin appears to act through some sort of adrenal mechanism (when the adrenals are removed, turmeric has no effect).”