Sunday, October 17, 2010

Fresh turmeric + tarka dal

If it's true that brightly coloured foods are especially good for you, then turmeric is (as indeed is often maintained) at the apex of that rainbow food pyramid.  My Chinese friend from work, Fiona, found these in one of the markets in Chinatown and we both bought some.  Neither of us had used it before--and I'd never even seen any.

So what is this like?  Everyone is familiar with the yellow turmeric powder made from these roots.  That powder is fairly bitter; you can't use too much in a recipe or the whole dish will taste of it.  I don't mind the bitterness of powdered turmeric, actually, but it's something you always have to keep in mind.  The roots aren't bitter at all, however.  They don't have much of a taste, raw or cooked.  The look and texture are like ginger, and the two plants are apparently related.  The colour of the inside is about like that of carrots, or the masoor (red lentil) dal I used to make my tarka dal.  Unlike ginger and red lentils and even carrots, however, this stuff stains.  We were pre-warned, so Fiona had put together a little kit of disposable plastic gloves and a plastic cover for her counter.  Fiona has beautifully manicured hands.  I don't, and didn't use plastic gloves, and by the time I was finished peeling and grating the roots, my hands looked like the hands of a twelve-year-five-pack-a-day smoker, fingers bright orange to the second joint.  And fresh turmeric has a slight tarriness, which you can see a little bit at the bottom of the grater--this is the underside though; the front was clogged with it so that after grating this much I had to actually wash and scrub the grater to get it off before I could grate more.  Same with the knives I had used for slicing and peeling.  My fingers didn't feel sticky, but they had the tarry stuff on them too, so I had to be very careful even after washing my hands about what I touched.  Later on after a good scrubbing most of it did come off (my hands; I was careful in the kitchen).

You can use fresh turmeric in any recipe that calls for the powder by doubling the amounts.  With mine I made tarka dal and turmeric rice to go with it. 

Tarka refers to an Indian cooking technique where spices and other flavorings are fried in hot oil to bring out their flavours, then added to the main part of a dish either at the beginning, or as I most often do it, at the end.  Tarka dal is amazingly delicious, and super easy to make, with a million variations.  Here's what I did:

Tarka dal
serves 2

1/2 cup red lentils
1 tsp grated fresh turmeric or 1/2 tsp dried
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 medium onion, finely sliced
1 tsp grated ginger
1 tsp garlic, crushed or pressed
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded if desired, and sliced lengthwise
1/2 cup diced or crushed peeled tomatoes (canned is fine)
cilantro for garnish

Wash the lentils and put them in a medium saucepan with about 1 1/2 cups water (you can add more water later if you like a soupier dal) and the turmeric.  Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down, partially cover, and simmer for half an hour, or until the lentils have mostly broken down and the mixture is soft.  Watch that this doesn't boil over.

Meanwhile, make the tarka.  Heat the oil in a skillet, and, when hot, add the cumin seeds and, a few seconds later, the onion, and cook until the onion is brown and partially caramelized.  Remove half of the cooked onion/cumin and set aside for garnish.  To the other half still in the pan, add the garlic, ginger and sliced peppers, stir and cook 30 seconds, then add the tomatoes and continue to cook for a few more minutes, until everything is hot. 

Pour the tarka into the cooked dal and mix well.  Add salt to taste.  Serve sprinkled with cilantro and the reserved caramelized onions.

For the rice, I simply cooked 1 cup of jasmine rice with 1 tsp of grated turmeric in 2 cups of salted water.  Isn't it beautiful?  Yes, it really was this bright!  There was a very slight turmeric taste to the rice, but it was not much like the taste of powdered turmeric, just a nice fresh flavour.  Would I buy this again?  You bet!


  1. This post is way too esoteric for me, but I thought I'd leave a comment anyway.

  2. Very cool. They sell turmeric root at my local co-op, and I bought a few pieces over several months, I used it shredded in morning smoothies, as you say, for the health benefits...never made anything as tasty looking as this. I'll have to give it another go. That is such a delicious looking plate of food.

  3. (I can't look at your blog before breakfast, your pics make me terribly hungry!) YUM!

  4. Shenandoah, I'm very cool with "esoteric", so thanks!

    Rose, interesting idea, turmeric in smoothies. Another thing I never could have thought of. I'll have to give it a try...

    Thanks, Katharine, this was a very nice meal experience ;-)

  5. that was really great info about turmeric! i leaned a lot from this post. funny and informational=winner:)

  6. Great receipe. Made this last night and it was a big hit. Great instructions too; so many receipes call for putting the ginger and garlic in too early, in which case the flavors get cooked out, but I prefer your method. Now will check to see if youve got another receipe that uses fresh tumeric! Thanks!