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Turmeric Health Benefits and Culinary Uses

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(Curcuma longa) Grown for its bright yellow dye, which is not fast to light, let alone washing, and so has to have some mordant with it. It was used in surprising ways, if we are to believe Pomet - "the Founders employ it to tinge their Metals, and the Button-makers to rub their wood with, when they would make an Imitation of Gold".

Where the simplest preparation is still in use, in the Pacific islands and New Guinea, it serves mainly for cosmetics or for painting wood, etc., (Buhler). Body painting of one form or another was the main use of the yellow powder in Polynesia, and there are distinct sexual overtones to its use. On the Marquesas it was used in quantity by adolescents, particularly during orgiastic ceremonies and other situations involving sexual activity. The smell was supposed to have a sexually stimulating effect (Suggs). To the Muria, of India, the yellow colour makes it both a ghost scarer and a sexual symbol. The oil with which it is mixed is another sex symbol, recalling the oil traditionally put on a lover's mat "to make it slippery" (Elwin). The rubbing of turmeric and oil on the bride and groom is an essential part of a marriage festival in India (Pandey).

Elsewhere, though, the yellow colour has a different meaning. On Tikopia, turmeric is daubed over mother and child soon after birth, as a mark of attention, or even of honour. It is used to single out individuals who are at the moment of special interest and importance (Firth). Yellow is a colour sacred to the gods in Samoa, so the gathering and processing of the roots became a religious ceremony, with its prescribed rites. Turmeric powder is used as a medicine, as well as a dye. Mixed with oil, it is rubbed on inflamed parts, especially over recent tattooing, to soothe the pain. It was used in Samoa as a dusting powder for babies (Buck). In the Marquesas it is used as an insect repellent, and in Java it is the commonest laxative in use (Geertz). But the best known use in medicine is pure doctrine of signatures, for it is very comonly prescribed for jaundice, and a long way from Polynesia, too. The Mano, of Liberia, for example, use it in this way. The patient has to drink daily a cupful of the root infusion (Harley). Thornton, in New family herbal, 1810, noticed the use for jaundice, too. In Chinese herbal medicine, the root is used as a stomachic and diuretic (R Hyatt), but it is also classed there as a

"blood invigorator", and can be used for a form of mental derangement (Geng Junying).

Perhaps the most recognisable use of turmeric (in Britain) is as a colouring agent for food. Curry powders contain it, as well as ginger and fenugreek, but it is the turmeric that accounts for the distinctive colour (H G Baker), so much so that the plant is often called Curry (Schauenberg & Paris). Pickles used to be coloured that way (Clair), and probably still are. Because the preparation of the yellow dye is lengthy, the powder was quite valuable, and in some Pacific areas it was used as a unit of currency right up to the 1940's. The value of anything was expressed as so many taik cakes, taik being the name of the powder (Einzig).

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