Turmeric comes from the underground stem, or rhizome, of a plant in the ginger family, and in fact it looks much like ginger when fresh. The stems are boiled, dried, and then ground into a powder.
The plant is native to South Asia, so it's not surprising that turmeric spice is most widely used in the cuisines from that part of the world. Turmeric has a pungent earthy aroma and adds a slight bitterness and astringency to dishes. It's not often used on its own, but is usually used to round out spice mixes for things like curries and meat rubs.
In our general cooking, we like to add a pinch of turmeric to stews and braises. It doesn't actually add a particularly strong flavor, but gives a dish some depth and that hint of je ne sais quoi. Turmeric is also great with fish and seafood, and it can be used to help season a pot of grains.
Turmeric is also highly valued as a coloring agent. Just a little of the powder tints an entire dish yellow! Here's a tip: if you don't want to pay big bucks for a packet of saffron, you can substitute a few pinches of turmeric. The spices have different flavors (saffron is more floral), but they are both powerful coloring agents.
Curious to give turmeric a try? Check out these recipes:
What other ways do you use turmeric in your cooking?