Turmeric – Kamin
by Kasma Loha-unchit
Turmeric (kamin): Unlike other members of the ginger family used in Thai cooking, fresh turmeric is pleasantly mild and does not have a sharp bite. On the other hand, it has a very loud color – deeply orange inside an orange-tinged beige-brown skin. When added to foods, its carrot orange actually imparts a bright yellow color. The pretty color and delicate flavor of fresh turmeric is well-loved in the southern region of Thailand, where it is extensively used in curries, soups, stir-fried dishes, fried foods, snacks and desserts.
Another variety, known by some as "white" turmeric, is consumed by Southeast Asians and available from some of their markets during late spring and summer. Its flesh is a lighter color than common turmeric; its flavor, however, is not as subtle, and some roots can be quite pungent. Southeast Asian cultures not only cook with this turmeric but eat the young roots raw or blanched, dipped in spicy sauces.
Turmeric is much smaller than ginger, the fleshy root composed of a fat cylindrical rhizome tapered on both ends, from whose sides branch two opposite rows of short, slender finger-like appendages from one to three inches in length. Growing both straight or curved, smooth or knobby and gnarly, the "fingers" break easily from the parent root and are more often found in markets as unattached members.
Use the fresh root whenever possible for the recipes on this Web site. It has a delicate flavor that is simply exquisite – fuller, subtly more complex and much more pleasant than the dried or powdered varieties, which can have an unagreeable medicinal smell and taste. Look for it in Southeast Asian markets, or specialty produce markets that carry a wide range of ethnic ingredients, during the warmer months of the year. If you are not able to find it fresh, substitute with a fresh batch of turmeric powder, or grind your own from a dried root. Make sure the powdered kind is pure, as inferior brands frequently have a strong, acrid taste. Use approximately half teaspoon for each one-inch piece (or generous minced teaspoon) of fresh turmeric; often, you will need to add a little sugar to the sauce to bring forth its flavor.
The fresh rhizomes store well if kept dry in the refrigerator – wipe dry if they are damp, then wrap with a paper towel before placing in a ziplock plastic bag. I once was able to keep a very fresh batch for several months; and when they turned moldy and ended up in the compost pile, I was amazed to find them sprouting into beautiful plants (with large broad leaves like hostas and white flowers like hyacinths) some time later. They do have magical qualities and are known for healing scars, including their own!
Through the ages, turmeric has been sought as a medicinal herb. Herbalists are familiar with its stimulant and tonic properties and prescribe the juice extracted from the rhizome as an internal antiseptic and antidote to blood poisoning. In traditional folk medicine, the dried root is ground and rubbed on the skin to treat skin diseases; mixed with coconut oil, it speeds the healing of wounds and minimizes scarring. It is also believed to possess magical powers: a piece of the wild rhizome ingested or worn is said to strengthen one's constitution when magic words are chanted to invoke its protective essence. Finally, turmeric has been valued for centuries as a natural cosmetic and dye, coloring the vibrant saffron robes of Buddhist monks. Blended with pomegranate skin, it produces a rich reddish brown color; with acacia leaves, a lovely shade of green; and with lime, a pretty orangish red.
Our Ingredients Index contains links to many more Thai ingredients.
Here's a particularly beautiful turmeric root posted as a Wednesday Photo on our blog.