How to grow... turmeric

Turmeric can be grown from plants or propagated from fresh roots - available at weekend markets and even some supermarkets.
Russell Fransham

Turmeric can be grown from plants or propagated from fresh roots - available at weekend markets and even some supermarkets.

Everyone suddenly wants to grow turmeric (Curcuma longa). Or at least that's the impression I get. 

I'm fielding enquiries about it every other week, largely because of turmeric's well-publicised health benefits. It has anti-inflammatory properties and its flavour and bold golden hue can't hurt either. 

Fresh turmeric has a warm somewhat resinous flavour that's far superior to the harsh, almost burnt qualities of the dried spice. Unlike fresh storebought ginger, supplies of fresh turmeric can be erratic, so it's worth trying to grow your own. 

Turmeric is a member of the ginger family of plants.

Turmeric is a member of the ginger family of plants.

GROWING GUIDE

Although a relatively novel food crop in New Zealand, turmeric has actually been grown here for many years by ethnic Indian, Sri Lankan and Pakistani gardeners. 

A member of the Zingiberaceae family, like most gingers turmeric is a tropical plant. It has no stomach for frost and is far from impressed even with Auckland's half-hearted winters. It is easily (and advisably) grown in containers, however, which can be moved indoors when the plant is dormant in winter.

You can buy plants from Russell Fransham's Subtropicals Nursery from early summer, or have a crack at propagating your own plants from the edible rhizomes. Fresh roots (imported from Fiji) are available from many Indian spice and produce traders as well as at weekend markets or even supermarkets in larger centres. 

Fresh turmeric rhizomes resemble small, rather emaciated ginger roots with brilliant orange flesh that softly glow through their tan-coloured skins. To grow your own turmeric, choose the largest, least shrivelled roots you can find. Leave these in a warm, dry place out of direct sun until shoots appear. This can take several weeks and, although not essential, it lessens the likelihood of the roots rotting before they begin to grow. 

Press the roots shoot-side up into a blend of potting mix and good quality compost. Turmeric is not deep-rooted so shallow tubs – 20cm or so – are sufficient. Water carefully and place in a very warm, sunny spot. 

It's a good idea to plant two batches; one for harvesting in late autumn when the foliage dies down and one for producing next year's propagation roots. Water regularly (except during dormancy, when all watering should be suspended) and apply liquid fertiliser fortnightly. 

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HOW TO USE

Fresh turmeric roots shrivel quickly once harvested so they should be frozen for long-term storage. Most recipes call for the roots to be grated anyway and frozen turmeric is easy to grate.

This korma recipe can be made with lamb, chicken, paneer or vegetables. It's a mild yet fragrant dish that is all the better for the absence of cumin.

Ingredients

1 onion
1 clove garlic
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1 tablespoon grated fresh turmeric
½ teaspoon garam masala
½ teaspoon ground white pepper
½ cup raw cashew nuts, soaked in a little warm water for 1 hour
pinch of ground saffron soaked in a little warm water
3 cardamom pods
1 can coconut milk
1 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds
2 tablespoons shredded curry leaves

Method

Blend onion, ginger, garlic and garam masala to a paste. Sauté gently in oil until tender.

Make a paste from cashews and their soaking water, turmeric, pepper and saffron.

Add to onion mixture then stir in coconut milk and cardamom. Simmer until thick, taking care not to let it burn.

Remove cardamom then add meat or veges till cooked.

To "temper" the curry, fry mustard seeds and curry leaves in hot oil until they pop. Quickly stir into korma.

Serve with rice and spicy mango pickles. 

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 - NZ Gardener

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