When people think of turmeric or haldi as most Fijian's know it, they think only of Indian curries and Hindu rituals. But this ancient golden spice has been around a long time and was used as a healing medicine in the past, but it is only recently that scientists are confirming what the ancient civilizations have known for centuries - haldi can help heal many diseases. Turmeric is a plant that is common in the Indian subcontinent, Southern China, Indonesia, and parts of Africa, and used in the production of curry spices; the key ingredient that gives it its yellow colour. A relative of another healing herb, ginger, scientists have begun revealing the exact health benefits of this plant with research and history showing how turmeric can be used to help treat or prevent many of the most common and serious health conditions.
Turmeric powder has anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties that make it an ideal antiseptic used to treat cuts and abrasions, and can magically stop bleeding. Possibly one of the most impressive health benefits of turmeric is as a powerful cancer fighter. Curcumin is the natural anti-cancer compound found in turmeric that has been shown to block cancer growth and potentially slow or prevent the spread of breast cancer. In a study at the University of California of Los Angeles, research is also beginning to show that turmeric may be effective at protecting against brain degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, and point to the low incidence of neurological diseases in elderly Indian populations across the world where turmeric is a common spice in the diet. Turmeric is widely used in the Indian medicine as well as in traditional Chinese medicine and can be found as in ointments and lotions for the treatment of wounds, ringworm, eczema, and inflammations. In Indian medicine, turmeric has a long history of use as an anti-inflammatory agent, specifically used in the treatment of arthritis. But haldi's health benefits are not only known by the Indian people. On the Japanese island of Okinawa, this island nation has the world's longest average life span of 81.2 years, where turmeric tea is consumed in large quantities either freshly brewed or ready to drink in cans. Moroccan, Middle Eastern and Chinese cuisine is full of different spices but it is turmeric that is common across all these old civilizations that has been used in cooking for colour, flavour and its medicinal properties. It is one of the oldest foods used as medicine.
Although many spices have been shown to boost health, turmeric is especially gaining massive recognition for its incredible ability to fend off illness and disease. Shown to positively impact over 500 diseases, the latest studies show turmeric is rising to the top of the list in natural remedies and prevention of many of the non-communicable diseases we see in Fiji. Without doubt, there is a clear connection between turmeric and diabetes prevention. Turmeric and curcumin have been shown in research overseas to fight inflammation and oxidative damage - two processes which help a number of diseases to appear and develop, including type 2 diabetes. One study published in the journal Nutrition shows how turmeric normalizes insulin and triglyceride levels while boosting antioxidant defences; keeping triglyceride and insulin levels low, effectively reducing the risk of numerous health conditions like metabolic syndrome, heart disease, and - you guessed it - diabetes.
But as someone asked me the other week, if Fijians have been already eating all these healthy herbs like ginger, garlic and haldi, why do we still see non-communicable diseases increasing in the country? The answer is simple. It is the other things that you are eating or not eating that is preventing these good herbs and spices from doing their job. Too much sugar, too much processed oils like vegetable oil and margarine, too much salt, and too much bread are the biggest culprits. It's the hidden ingredients in all these bad foods that make it hard for the natural medicines from working properly. The lack of raw fruit and crunchy fibrous vegetables in the Fijian diet is also a contributing factor, as well as those salty peas, peanuts and snacks cooked in lots of oil. If you don't eat a balanced diet and drink plenty of water, all the wonderful natural and fresh food that Mother Nature has provided for Fijians are wasted.
So are there other ways to enjoy the healing benefits of haldi without having to eat curries all day? Yes! There are recipes from all the old civilizations that use turmeric and today I share a few of these delicious dishes to enjoy at home. Fresh haldi is available in most of the markets around Fiji, but is one of the least understood spices in the kitchen. It looks similar to ginger but thinner and slightly orange. It is a perfect addition to BBQ meats, egg omelettes, Moroccan stews and as I enjoyed in Kadavu, makes a beautifully rich curry when grated fresh with coconut. And when roasted or pan fried with the fresh cauliflower that I see at the markets, turmeric turns this boring white vegetable into an especially healthy and vegetarian dish packed full of vitamins and nutrition. If you're a lover of herbal teas like me, I've also included my turmeric tea recipe to enjoy at any time of day, but it is especially good just before you go to bed for a peaceful night's sleep, so I've called it my Haldi Sleeping Tea.
So just as haldi is a symbol of purity, prosperity and fertility in the Hindu culture, this golden spice has become one of the most important ingredients to include in a modern healthy diet. And luckily for Fiji, you are blessed with this wild organic superfood.
* Lance Seeto is an International Food & Travel Writer, Author and Executive Chef based on Castaway Island, Fiji. Follow his culinary adventures on his Facebook page, Fijian Food Safari.