Curcuma (Turmeric)

Dried Turmeric Root
Turmeric (Curcuma longa/C. domestica), also known as Curcuma, Indian Saffron, Indian Yellow Root (not to be focused with American "Yellowroot", which is also sometimes called "Indian Turmeric" but is actually Hydrastis canadensis) or Amomoum Curcuma is a note not often found in Western perfumery, but it has such an important role in herbal medicine (particularly Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine), and it's hard to imagine many cuisines without its earthy flavour and bright yellow colour. All in all, turmeric's distinctive aroma is worth exploring on this blog.

Guess the plant! #plantriddle
The plant belongs to the ginger, galangal and cardamom family, and like all of these, it has beautiful foliage and showy red-pink flowers that are arranged in an inflorescence, that grow wild in the jungles of Southeast Asia - and where cultivated, can make a garden look lusciously tropical. It can even grow in my home village - although with the nasty eastern winds that blow here many days feel bone dry here and the land is particularly parched this fall, many tropical plants and trees can grow here and produce delicious fruit and fragrant flowers. It does get a bit too cold in the winter, so it may be better for it to grow in a potted plant and be brought into a hothouse during the cooler months (November through March) and of course it will require plenty of watering to make up for the lack of monsoons in our region. I'm certainly going to add it to my little perfumer's botanical garden that I'm dreaming up these days...

#hint: Guess the plant! #plantriddle

Turmeric is known for its high content of vitamin C and is rich in minerals [1]. It is especially valued for its effective anti-inflammatory properties of its unique constituent curcumin (diferuloylmethane), which also provides its distinctve  deep golden-yellow colour. A word of caution: watch out for turmeric that has an orange-red colour (or more of a red hue after coming into contact with liquid) - it is probably adulterated with lead oxide (!), and some turmeric powders are mixed with metanil yellow - AKA acid yellow 36, even though both are toxic and illegal.

Besides curcumin, turmeric contains two other curcuminoids: demethoxycurcumin and bisdemethoxycurcumin, as well as the constituents turmerone, atlantone, and zingiberene, which gives it an earthy, mellow, warm flavour.

Southern Seas Trading Co. in Vancouver sells a turmeric powder that claims to have 5% curcumin, and is really incomparable to the what you'd commonly find on the spice racks in most supermarkets or even in the souks. Too often, turmeric powder has a light yellow, almost sulfur-like colour, and has very little aroma, and taste almost like dust. That is usually a sign that it is probably too old. This is true, by the way, to many spices - if they've lost their vibrancy and "bite", they should be replaced by a fresh batch that has the characteristics you're after. Otherwise - what is the point of adding spices in the first place?!

Turmeric essential oil is clear orange-amber or "a yellowy-orange liquor with a faint blue fluorescence and a fresh spicy-woody odour" [1] with about 60% turmerone, ar-turmerone, atlantone, zingiberone, channel, borneo, sabinene, phellandrene and more. It's important to note that turmerone is a ketone, and is "moderately toxic and irritant in high concentration. Possible sensitization problems". [1]. Becomes semi-viscous over time.


Turmeric as a dye and food colouring:
You've probably ate turmeric without even knowing it in your mustard paste and cucumber pickles (it is used to mask the unsightly fading that is inevitable on pickles that were sitting on the shelf too long). It also gives cauliflower pickles an exotic colour, and brings out the best in mango chutneys and pickles.

Additionally, turmeric can be used as a dye for clothing, although it has very poor lightfast qualities (it fades easily). The saffron-coloured robes that Buddhist monks wear are customarily dyed with turmeric powder. Turmeric is also used in various pastes and unguents that are used in religious rituals to decorate the buddha sculptures and mark the place of the "third eye".

Turmeric in savoury dishes:
In areas where turmeric is a native, fresh leaves are also used to wrap food with and impart their unique flavour to the dish. But in most of the world, it is the dried rhizomes (often referred to as "roots") that are used. In this form, turmeric found its way first through the spice caravans into Arabic cuisine, North Africa and Europe - and later on also to the Americas who in return contributed the heat of chilli peppers to spice blends and cooking traditions the world over.

It's hard to recall many East Indian dishes without turmeric, and indeed you'll find this amount or another in countless East Indian recipes, and in dishes alongside garam masala blends and also in the various blends that are called "curry powder" (mostly these are Western interpretations of various Southeast Asian spice blends) where it is mixed with fenugreek, cumin, coriander seed, and chilli pepper. Other ingredients are used to give it nuances and distinctive style that is usually proprietary, i.e.: dry ginger roots, fennel, cinnamon, cloves, asafoetida, various peppers (long, black...), cardamom (green or black), mustard, and more. Turmeric can be found in other spice blends, such as Ras El Hanout, hawaij (a Yemeni spice mixed usually created with turmeric, cumin, black pepper and cardamom - and in more complex styles also may include cloves, caraway, coriander, fenugreek, etc.).

Turmeric is an essential component of the famous Thai Massaman curry (Muslim-inspired curry), which gives it both its golden colour and mild, earthy note that complements beautifully vegetables such as cauliflower and potato. It is used to colour and flavour banh xao (Vietnamese savoury rice-flour crepes).

Cooking with fresh turmeric is one of the most sensually satisfying culinary encounters, taking off the dusty aspect of working with the ground, dried herb. I was fortunate to procure the mango-coloured root that was at the same exotic produce store I mentioned earlier in Granville Island at the time. The ones I've seen grown in Israel are pale in comparison, but still I recommend experimenting with them. they can be grated as they are to add to curry pastes, or peeled and minced or sliced and be added to stews, soups and even teas. Some swear it is even more effective than ginger in chasing away the season's flu.


Turmeric in sweets, confections and pastries: 
Turmeric leaves are used in preparations of sweets from the west coasts of India called patoleo, patoley or Pan Mori - turmeric-scented cakes of rice and grated coconut. These are offered to several Hindu feminine deities (Parvati, Ganesh) and are eaten in Hindu feasts, India's Independence Day (August 15) and also the Assumption of Mary which falls on the same day and is celebrated by the Catholics in the region.

The Lebanese semolina cake Sfouf has an interesting play on savoury and sweet, and imaginative playful texture. Its fine semolina dough is highly fragrant with powdered turmeric rhizome and incorporates savoury fenugreek seeds and decorated with pine nuts. And if this isn't making you curious yet - it is also  layered with tahini (sesame paste) on the bottom and drenched in honey syrup on the top, creating by default a layer of halva at the base.

Another interesting East-Meets-West fusion I've discovered in the souk of Akko, was no other than a very Eastern-European pastry of poppy seed roll, in which the sweet yeast dough was coloured and flavoured with turmeric. After many searches for a poppy seed roll that will satisfy our homesickness (there was a killer poppyseed roll in non other than the seemingly generic Maple Leaf bakery on Davie Street) - this is the closest thing to what we were after, and also great on its own right.

Turmeric in Flavouring Work:
Turmeric essential oil has rather limited use as a favouring agent, because the powder is usually used. Turmeric oil is bitter and slightly pungent, except in extreme dilutions.
The Japanese turmeric has a flavour that is more spicy, bitter and slightly burning.

Turmeric in Folk Medicine:
Turmeric was used by the Jews of India ground turmeric into powder and made a medicinal porridge with sugar to treat diarrhea. Yemeni Jews used curcuma to treat jaundice, headaches stomach aches and digestive complaints. Moroccan Jews made a remedy for jaundice by mixing parts of the plant with honey and consuming it. Persian Jews prepared a paste for massaging the feet by mixing curcuma powder with Arak (an anise liquor). The Jews of Babylon believed that eating dishes heavily seasonsed with curcuma will lift the spirits of anyone who is suffering from depression. [2]

Turmeric in Herbal Medicine and Aromatherapy: 
Used for treatment of liver disease, stomach ulcers. For gustatory and digestive disturbances, brew 1 tsp of turmeric powder in boiled water for 5 minutes and sweeten with honey or sugar. For treatment of boils and severe warts, a paste of 50 g of turmeric powder blended with 15 mL (3 Tbs) of olive oil can be spread on the affected area.

Turmeric oil is used to treat inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and rheumatism as well muscular aches and pains. It is also helpful in anorexia, liver convention and sluggish digestion.

Tuberose Massaman

Odour Profile: 
Earthy, mineral, vibrant, subtle, spicy, fresh, with strong association to baked vegetables and potato and cauliflower curries. Has a certain sourness to it, tangy with hints of sweet orange, ginger and galangal notes. Root-like qualities, with some woody notes and slightly green note (this aspect has reminiscence to the sesame plant).

Japanese turmeric oil is more warm, dry-woody, powdery, camphoreous and with a slightly pepper-spicy note that brings to mind Atlas cedar wood [3].

Turmeric in Perfumery:
Turmeric is an exotic and unusual note that can be used in Oriental fragrances and imaginative Chypre fragrances. It works particularly well with Atlas cedar wood, rose, tuberose, ylang ylang, elecampane, violet, sandalwood, labdanum, orris resin, clary sage, mimosa, cassie, ginger, galangal, ginger lily, saffron and other spices, as well as ionones, musks,  heliotropine, etc [3]

As mentioned earlier, the use of turmeric is rather limited. Aside from my own work with it, I can't recall smelling it in too many perfumes, and I can only guess it may be a note in Santal de Mysore, as well as some natural perfumes I've experienced such as the now defunct Rose by Scent Systems and Aftelier's Parfum de Maroc. I've incorporated it in successfully in my "Massaman Curry" accord, which I've used in Tuberose Massaman OOAK perfume. There is also a hint of turmeric in another OOAK perfume titled "Curry Rose". I got to admit it worked well with these florals, echoing the buttery mystery of tuberose that is underlined but tuberous moistness; and also giving an earthiness for the rose to grow on.
Some of you may have also experienced some of my trials for an oud perfume that includes copious amounts of it - Assam Oud. In the latter, I've been greatly struggling with finding the balance between the elements, and the turmeric seemed to create a problem - constantly bringing out a sourness from the tagetes (marigold) which I was not fond of. It was a frustrating experience, but not one I am giving up on. There will be an Assam Oud perfume eventually for more of you to enjoy, and I am determined to find a way for the turmeric to work in there. There simply is something haunting and earthy about turmeric that I really want to mingle with agarwood's musty earthiness.

[1] Lawless, Julia, "The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils",  Elements Books, Australia, 1992, pp. 182-183
[2] Krispil, Nissim "Medicinal Plants in Israel and Throughout The World - The Complete Guide", Hed Artzi, Or Yehuda, Israel 2000, p. 132.
[3] Arctander, Steffen, "Perfume and Flavour Materials of Natural Origin", Allured Publishing, 1994, pp. 203-205

Long Pepper (Pipalli)

long pepper, originally uploaded by plainliving.

While browsing the many exotic spices at Capers I stumbled upon long pepper for the first time. Of course, when I came back to purchase it, there was non to be found. So I was thrilled (and relieved) when I discovered more of it at Southern Seas Trading Co (in Granville Island Public Market).

If you’ve never smelled long pepper, you’re probably puzzled why I was so excited to find it. Especially when I had absolutely no idea how it tastes like, not to mention how to put it into use.
Well, if you get a whiff of this strange, elongated catnip-flower-like rare spice, you will understand immediately:
It is musky, sweet and just so warm and cuddly it makes you want to sigh a long Ahhh.
Knowing that there is such a smell in the world is good enough to me. And being able to use it in cooking and baking is like delving into an unknown adventure.

Long pepper is indeed related to black pepper. And way back when Europe began its introduction into exotic spices from India, long pepper was prized more than most any other spice. That was until black pepper was discovered as well – it is not only much more affordable, but also easier to grind and work with. Long pepper is very hard and difficult to grind or grate. So far I have only been using it whole, and am yet to figure out the best way of grinding this beautiful and unusual spice, which really is just a miniature cluster of peppery seeds (if you’ve ever seen fresh peppercorns still in their cluster, you’ll know what I mean).

I’m still not sure how come it is not used as an essential oil in perfumery, and why it is just used for flavouring. Because so far, I find the flavour on its own quite underwhelming – it is so similar to pepper in how it feels in the mouth when one bites into it that it’s slightly disappointing even. So I’m only just beginning to experiment with long pepper and so far, using it whole is wonderful, in both savoury and sweet contexts. I added a couple of long peppers to a curried roasted pumpkin soup (along with black cardamom – my other new favourite). And I’ve also cooked a couple along with 3rd of a vanilla bean in a hot chocolate, much to my delight the musky aroma of the long peppers remained in the kitchen until the sad moment at the end of the day when I just figured it’s time to throw them out before it gets too weird…

But I’m most excited about using it for its scent along: throw a couple of long peppers into sachets and potpourri blends, or just on their own in drawers of stationary or even lingerie. I’m also going to try to tincture it and use it in my perfumes, tough I’m fully aware that using it this way may not be as effective as I’d like. But you can’t know till you try.

Other exciting uses for long pepper:




Desserts (but, of course!)

Mulled wine

Package From India

Surprise in the mail: a package from India. And the contents were definitely not what I expected.
My brother spent 6 months in the Chabad house in Rishikesh trapping Israeli backpackers into the bosom of Judaism. So you can imagine my surprise when I opened the package and found inside, instead of Hassidic propaganda, the sweetest letter (in English so Tamya can understand!) AND the most thoughtful and sweet little gifts for Tamya and I: spices (one of which really hard to find and I only than recalled that I did ask him to see if he can find it in India), Assam tea in a silk bag, turquoise beaded necklace, handmade paper notebooks wrapped in silk paper and some medicinally fragrant creams, ointments including Neem & Turmeric soap.

And now a little guessing game for you: guess what the spices are (there are only 2 of them and both are shown in the picture!) and you will receive a roll-on perfume of your choice that includes either of those notes from my collection - which is why I can't reveal the prize just as yet...!
Winner will be announced Friday June 19th.

Spicing It Up with Ras el Hanout

Today being Valentine’s Day, and me being equally tired of talking chocolate and being quite oblivious to the significant day (well, when we have Valentine, we should celebrate our love everyday; and for those of us who don’t have one, why rubbing it in our faces and flaunting dozens of roses and red lingerie in our faces?!) – I have decided to dedicate today’s post to one of my favourite topics of all – the seduction of the kitchen, cooking with spices and enjoying every moment of it. Whether if you cook for yourself, for your Valentine or for your family, the experience of cooking, in my opinion, seduces all the senses and invites us to enjoy the simplest things in life – and the most precious and important ones.

We tend to confuse love with passion and passion with libido… And so, many love potions are indeed nothing more than libido-enhancing concoctions, AKA aphrodisiacs.
Interestingly enough, the origins of Ras el Hanout, the Morrocan spice mixture that is infamous for its complexity and the creativity it allows for – was as an aphrodisiac. Concocted by skillful spice vendors or market magicians, Ras el Hanout was a display of the store’s most precious ingredients (hence the name, which literally translates to “top of the shop”).

The number of recipes for Ras el Hanout is greater than the number of spice vendors in the world. The reason? Ras el Hanout is often improvised, playing on seasonal availability and the spice master’s whims of creativity. Most recipes, however, call for cardamom, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, allspice, black pepper, ginger and cloves. Other common additions include chili, turmeric, galangal, cubebs, coriander, grains of paradise, lavender buds, rose petls, saffron, Spanish flies, orris root and even grains of musk…

The spices are first dry-roasted in a cast iron pan to bring out their flavours. Roast each spice separately, as they will require different lengths of exposure to heat. Once roasted, grind them manually in a mortar and pestle for best results. Either a marble or a copper one is best for achieving a fine powder. I have prepared this exquisite Ras el Hanout with one of my aromatic cooking classes, using freshly grated galangal, ginger and turmeric roots (available only through specialty stores such as the Southern Seas Trading Co. in Granville Island), but needless to say the dried version would be exquisite, as long as the roots are freshly ground, rather than those stale powders found in supermarket’s jars.

The proportions are only a suggestion. I think this is part of personalizing the recipe, and you may want to adjust the mixture while cooking. Depending on the dish you are using the recipe for, you may want to accentuate a certain spice, add a few more or even eliminate some. This recipe was made with a couscous vegetable stew in mind – one rich with orange coloured vegetables (carrot, yam, pumpkin, butternut squash…), celery and coriander. It would make a perfect accompaniment to lamb stew as well, resulting in a seductive, festive couscous feast.

2 tsp. Cardamom seeds
4 tsp. Coriander seeds
1 tsp. Cumin
2 tsp. Turmeric
1 tsp. Cinnamon
½ tsp. Cloves
1 tsp. Allspice
½ tsp. Lavender buds
a pinch of Saffron strands
½ tsp. Nutmeg
½ tsp. Mace
1 tsp. Black Pepper
½ - 1 tsp Cayenne (depending on how hot you’d like it)
1 tsp. Ginger
½ tsp. Galangal
1 tsp. Rosebuds
¼ tsp. Ajowan seeds
½ tsp. Ambrette seeds

Roast the spices separately (except for the already ground spices, the rose petals, lavender buds and ambrette seeds). Grind, measure and mix.

Use the Ras el Hanout to top-off rice or couscous, and of course - in soups and stews. This can also be used as a rub for meat and poultry before broiling or baking. I'll leave the rest to your imagination.

Below I included my recipe for a couscous stew. You may use packaged couscous although I do not recommend it... If you are in a particularly labourous mood, you may also prepare the couscous itself from scratch. It is not as difficult as it may sound, but explaining it in writing is a lot more difficult than demonstrating the process... So I've only included the stew recipe for now.

Couscous with Seasonal Vegetable Stew
The vegetables in a couscous stew are always cut into very, very lage pieces, and in some cases are even cooked whole. Use any vegetables that are in season. Couscous goes really well with everything, as it is rather neutral in flavour and absorbs all flavours it is served with. The following recipe is a classic Morrocan vegetarian couscous stew, very similar to the one my grandmother used to make for us.

3 small onions, cuts into quarters
Olive oil for sautéing
1 small butternut squash (or a big chunk of pumpkin or squash of your choice)
4 carrots, cut into 2-3 pieces
2 large yams, sliced into very thick slices
4 celery sticks, cut into 3-4 pieces each
1-2 zucchinis, cut into 2-3 pieces
4 small potatoes, whole, or 2 large ones cut into 2-4 pieces
Half cabbage, cut into 6 pieces
2 cups cooked, or 1 can pre-cooked chickpeas
2 bunches fresh cilantro (no need to chop – just make sure all stems and leaves are fresh and clean)
4 medium size tomatoes, cut into quarters

Water or soup stock – enough to fill the pot only ½ or ¾ way

- Prepare the vegetables as instructed above.
- Sauté the onions in the olive oil.
- Add 1 tsp. of Ras el Hanout and continue to sauté
- Add all the other vegetables, except for the cilantro and tomatoes, and cook until they start to slightly change their colour
- Add the water or soup stock – fill the pot only halfway through, or no more than ¾ high.
- Cook on high heat until water is boiling, and than lower down to medium heat and continue to simmer until the vegetables are soft.
- Add the tomatoes and cilantro, and continue cooking until the tomatoes and cilantro are cooked as well.
- Adjust seasoning to taste.

Awaiting Samosas

Samosa Making, New Delhi, India, originally uploaded by pavangupta.

As I was waiting for my samosas to be fried at the nearby Indian restaurant last night, I sat down for a moment of silence and anticipation. The sweet and savoury aromatic steam of spices and herbs frying in ghee filled the space and convinced me to stop my daily worries for a moment, and just sit down and indulge in the pleasure of anticipation.

I couldn't help but wonder about the connection between fragrance and food. Without the enormous variety of aromas of vegetables, fruit, spices, herbs and so on - food would be limited to tastes (there are only 5 of these), texture and colour.

There was both of the familiar and the mysterious in the aromas of curries simmering in that kitchen: the boldness of cumin, the melismas of cardamom, garlic and onion changing colours and flavours in the hot fat... I felt instantly at home even though there was a lot of the unfamiliar too: a rich, intriguing combination of coconut milk, ghee, foreign homemade cheeses, pastries which I never tried to make and the tandoori oven mulling over its current victim.

I sat there, forgetting that I've come to eat, not to smell, and wondered about the long tradition of spice uses in so many different places, and how the same spices have been used in different ways in different cultures and cuisine. For instance: cardamom is used mostly to spice-up the dark coffees and the syrupy-sweet baclavas in Arabia, while being a staple in almost any "garam masala" in India. Or basil, with its refreshing, rustic aroma, paired with tomatoes and pastas in Italy and also thrown into the refreshing and creamy Thai curries. Or ginger - the gingerbread's favourite companion in Europe and North America, while used mostly fresh in stir fries in Asia... And so on and on the list goes...

In mankind's search for a better life, the spice caravans have created a connection between the people of the earth, making them silently connected by their passion for finding flavour in their life...

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