The Wonder Spice: A Review of Turmeric, a Cookbook by Colleen Taylor Sen and Helen Saberi


Several years ago, I set up an informal experiment with an observation of two: in my tiny two-person household, I cooked and ate only Indian food for one month, relying heavily on cookbooks by Julie Sahni and Madhur Jaffrey. I felt terrific, with more energy and alertness than I knew what to do with. Of course, after the  month ended, I soon fell back into my old ways of eating, which consisted of a wide variety of dishes from around the world, and not just the usual hot-dog/hamburger stereotype of American cooking and eating.

But the sense that there was really something to Ayurvedic medicine and other claims associated with Indian food stayed with me. I read up on turmeric (Curcuma longa) and soon discovered that there might indeed be a link between this misshapen root and better health.

So when I received a review copy of Colleen Taylor Sen’s and Helen Saberi’s ebook, Turmeric: The Wonder Spice: Great Recipes Featuring the Wonder Spice that Fights Inflammation and Protects Against Disease (Chicago, Agate Digital, 2014), I jumped at the chance to immerse myself once again in my favorite flavors.

Sen and Saberi, both highly experienced food writers and culinary historians, are uniquely qualified to write Turmeric. Through ties fostered by marriage, Sen and Saberi gained deep knowledge and understanding respectively of the Indian and Afghani cultures of their husbands. And Sen also wrote Food Culture in India, Curry: A Global History, and the forthcoming Masala: A History of Indian Food (2014), while Saberi authored Afghan Food and Cookery and The Road to Vindaloo: Curry Cooks and Curry Books (with David Burton). Agate Publishing, incidentally, published two books up for IACP Awards this year: The Sardinian Cookbook, by Viktorija Todorovska and Prep School, by James T. DeWan.

Looking at the overall history of cookbooks, Sen and Saberi’s Turmeric falls into the category of health-related food books, a genre dating far back into the past.

So let’s talk a little bit about the book.

A disclaimer on the verso page states clearly that “The medical information in this book is provided as an information resource only and is not to be relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes.” But nevertheless, over 6,000 studies carried out in the last half-century suggest that something very potent likely exists in turmeric. That something may well be curcumin, as stated clearly in the Foreword written by Dr. Bharat B. Aggarwal, a professor at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center and “the world’s leading researcher on the health benefits of turmeric.” He suggests that ½ teaspoon per day (spread out over three meals) provides people with a safe and adequate dose.

Turmeric continues with a short introduction and explanation – “What is Turmeric?” – which in turn leads to a brief, but still detailed, discussion of the health benefits and safe dosage of this amazing rhizome. A section concerning the history of turmeric and its use globally precedes concise discussions of the uses of turmeric other than culinary, as well as the different varieties of turmeric.

And then come the recipes, or vehicles for transferring curcumin from the rhizome to the belly – usually best in fresh or powdered form and not as supplements, according to the authors. Most of the 70 some recipes, but not all, originated in Indian or Afghan cookery. But many stem from other regions of the world, enlivened with turmeric. Categories include Soups, Fish and Seafood, Rice, Meat and Poultry, Vegetables and Side Dishes, Pickles and Chutneys, Teatime and Snacks, and Spice Mixtures. An interesting selection of vegetarian recipes will appeal to vegetarians and vegans alike. Some recipes suggest interesting fusions; take for example “Spaghetti with Shrimp, Eastern Style,” featuring Parmesan cheese combined with shrimp, pasta, garam masala, turmeric, and white wine! Marvelous! “Meatball Soup with Dill” provides an interesting taste experience, too, because the use of dill in Afghanistan recalls its inclusion in other cuisines of the region. Seeing a recipe for “Country Captain,” a favorite chicken dish from the American South, thrilled me and informed me that the authors really did their research in ensuring a global bent to the book. Headnotes often provide interesting little asides about the recipes, as in the case of “Yellow Baghara Rice”: “John T. Platt’s A Dictionary of Urdu, Classical Hindi, and English defines baghār as ‘heated oil or ghī in which onions and spices are well stirred and browned to (prepared as a relish for food.’ “ The authors often include nutritional information about the recipe in the headnotes as well.

Most of the recipes require very little time to prepare, a definite plus in today’s hurry-hurry world. The authors provide enough guidelines so that readers can modify flavors if so desired.

Following the recipes is a helpful list of suggested readings and Websites, plus abbreviated biographies of the authors.

No traditional index exists, but since Turmeric comes in e-book format, the search function makes up for that somewhat, as does the Table of Contents, which lists each recipe by general category and title. An index would go far to ensure that, say, all recipes containing yogurt are listed together or Vegan and Vegetarian dishes stand out from the rest. Most recipe titles are in English, but it might be helpful in later editions to include translations after such recipes as S’fuf, Pakoras, Raita, Akoori, Kuku-e-Tarkari, Meserwat, etc.

What sets this book apart from others similar to it? After all, features at least 16 books published in just the last two years about turmeric and which tout its miraculous properties. But not every one of these books contains recipes and, if they do, the recipes are not necessarily easy to follow nor do they always come from writers who have walked the walk, so to speak. The endorsement of Dr. Aggarwal also lends a great deal of authority to the concept of curcumin being the “wonder spice,” that it’s not just another example of New-Age wishful thinking.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to get back to the kitchen and try more of the recipes in Turmeric. Maybe “Chicken and Tomato Pilau?”

Turmeric 3 rs
Ground turmeric (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

© 2014 C. Bertelsen

One thought on “The Wonder Spice: A Review of Turmeric, a Cookbook by Colleen Taylor Sen and Helen Saberi

  1. Another really wonderful essay, Cindy! I emailed you a story of my first ever encounter with Turmeric. You will get a chuckle, I hope! Namaste……..Leo

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