The world now swears by turmeric. So why are some Indian communities loath to use it?

‘Haldi is not a spice...There’s no flavour, no taste, no aroma.’

In India, it is a rare dish that makes no use of haldi. In fact, not using it in a dish is often considered blasphemous or at least idiosyncratic. My friend Sanjeev Goswami, owner of a slew of Indian restaurants all over China, tells me that he once hired a manager to look after the Shanghai restaurants (he has three in the city). The manager had been in Shanghai for just a week when Goswami left for Delhi. Three months later, the new appointee had settled in, but Goswami, sitting in Delhi, found that there had been no requisition for turmeric: Rather unusual, considering that all the dry ingredients for Goswami’s chain of restaurants – spices, papads, ghee etc. – came from India. Curious, Goswami returned to Shanghai and asked the chef to cook him a dal and a vegetable. What came out from the kitchens had a curiously unappetizing colour. When Goswami expressed his shock and outrage, the sheepish chef admitted that the new manager, in his zeal to keep costs down, had urged the staff to make do without haldi once their stock was finished. Goswami lost no time in sacking the hapless manager, since ‘there is no Indian cooking without haldi’.

This is not completely untrue; since this elemental spice goes into over 95 per cent of all dishes that any household in the country consumes. The use of haldi is also inextricably linked to its colour. In fact, out of all the spices, it is this one that is used more for its colour than for its somewhat astringent flavour.

The community that probably makes the most use of it are the Kashmiris. They even ladle it down the throats of new mothers in the form of soups that contain haldi, salt, garlic and little else, boiled with lamb, to (apparently) heal the mother internally and strengthen her bones. There is not a single dish into which haldi does not find its way in the valley, except two. One is haakh or spinach greens boiled with water to which salt and whole green chillies have been added. The other is tomato chutney, made by cooking tomatoes until all their water evaporates, and then adding oil, salt and green chillies to make a piquant, tongue-tingling thick sauce. For the rest, a dish without haldi is referred to in Kashmir as being ‘unpleasantly white’. Indeed, a pinch of the spice is even sprinkled into hot oil when cauliflower is being fried so that the vegetable acquires a golden hue, notwithstanding the fact that it is soon going to be popped into tomato gravy. Similarly, yakhni, which is made with large quantities of yogurt, is made ‘attractive’ with the addition of a minute pinch of turmeric to save it from being completely white.

And perhaps because of Kashmir’s love affair with turmeric, Kashmiris are very particular about how they cook this spice, given that they toss their spices into boiling water rather than sautéing them. If you put turmeric into water and let it boil without the lid on, or put it into cold water and then let it boil, you run the risk of what is known as ‘lidder mushuk’ or the odour of turmeric. As far as I know, no other community has ever faced this problem or is even aware of it, but that is probably because only Kashmiris boil turmeric powder – and all the other spices – rather than sautéing them. Why? To answer this question, I once went to the only Kashmiri wazas, or traditional hereditary caterers, who live outside the valley: Ahadsons, an extremely popular catering service based in Delhi since the 1980s, which is now run by the second generation. The dapper man-about-town, Shafiq Waza, is an MBA and his brothers Rafiq and Sharif cook wazwan food for the who’s-who of Delhi. The three of them tell me that Kashmiris boil lamb with spices because they don’t want their spices to burn, and they want them to penetrate the meat and vegetables completely. The steam, according to the Waza brothers, does the trick in a way that hot oil never can.

As a food writer, it is always tantalising to find exceptions to the rules. So while I know that almost everything cooked in India uses turmeric, I search of recipes that don’t. Delhi-based Chef Arun Tyagi, who specializes in regional Indian cuisines, is cautious about committing himself to the unassailable position of turmeric in Indian food. Green vegetables, whole lentils including red kidney beans (raajma) and Bengal gram (chana), Kolhapuri meat, Bengali doi maach – none of these calls for haldi, he points out.

He is corroborated by Modhurima Sinha, Kolkata-based gourmet cook, who plies me with a list of dishes in the West Bengali (Ghoti) tradition that use no turmeric. First of all, there’s the breakfast dish of aloo chechki with luchis. The potatoes are cut super small – it is the shape of the cut which is called chechki apparently – and do not have turmeric in them. Chochchori and shukto – both combinations of mixed vegetables – the former using vegetable peelings and stems that are usually discarded and the latter a standard mix of raw bananas, aubergines, potatoes and drumsticks in a slightly bitter gravy – do not have any turmeric in them. Lau chingri, the classic pairing of bottle gourd and prawns doesn’t have the golden spice either. None of the handful of preparations of banana flower, called mocha, use turmeric, and masoor dal is not prepared with turmeric either.

In North-Indian food, exceptions are rare but not non-existent. Turmeric is not required in the crisp-fried okra dish called kurkure bhindi, in potatoes that have been soured with dried mango powder (aamchur aloo), in mutton/chicken dopiaza, cream chicken, or any other white gravy. You do not require it normally when you cook okra with mustard oil, you never require it for stuffed vegetables, which call for cumin, coriander, chilli and dried mango powder. No whole lentil requires turmeric in the tempering. Monish Gujral of the Moti Mahal Delux Tandoori Trail chain says that of the four most common spices, haldi is the least used. That, he is quick to explain, is because, none of the hottest selling items in his restaurants: butter chicken, dal makhni, tandoori items and shahi paneer, use turmeric.

Another community that makes minimal use of turmeric is the Muslim community of Delhi and UP. Restaurants like the iconic Karim’s in Delhi use turmeric in just a couple of their preparations but for the most part, the familiar yellow colour is missing from their lamb dishes. Ask a member of the renowned Qureshi clan of Lucknow-based butchers-turned-chefs where they use turmeric, and the answer invariably comes after a long pause. There’s a lamb curry called bandh gosht that uses onions, cumin, garam masala, grated dried coconut, khus-khus (poppy seeds) and yellow chilli in addition to turmeric. But it is an everyday dish, too home-style, to be put on restaurant menus.

‘Haldi is not a spice,’ say the chefs of the Qureshi clan scathingly. ‘It is an Ayurvedic medicine. There’s no flavour, no taste, no aroma. It cannot be called a spice.’

One member of this remarkable clan adds, rather patronizingly, that paneer tikka is the only tandoori dish that makes use of turmeric, and that too, only because otherwise it would be white, and hence unappealing to Indian tastes. He probably does have a point.

Traditional Lucknowi cooks opine that turmeric is only used in their cuisine when a golden colour is required; nothing more. And it is crucial to determine the exact stage of the cooking process where it should be added. Too early and the colour of the finished dish will become an amorphous brown; too late and you risk serving raw turmeric! Nihari, the iconic winter dish of stewed lamb that is ideally left on a slow fire all night, is a case in point. The turmeric is added much later than the coriander seeds and chilli powder, so that the finished dish has a golden tinge. On the other hand, classics like the kormas, rogan josh and lagan ka boti do not require a ‘sunehri’ tinge and thus, do not use turmeric at all.

Excerpted with permission from The Flavour of Spice, Marryam H. Reshii, Hachette India.

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