What Gives Curry That Golden Yellow Color?

Turmeric, the Golden Healing Spice

The Spruce / Nancy Lopez-McHugh

Often times curry dishes have a golden color―have you ever wondered what gives it that bright golden hue? The answer is turmeric. 

What Is Turmeric?

Turmeric, also known as curcuma in some languages, is classified as a rhizome. The botanical definition is as follows, "a thick plant stem that grows underground and has shoots and roots growing from it.​" Turmeric is in the same rhizome classification as ginger and they are often used similarly. Turmeric comes from Indian and it is popular in Asian cuisines and traditional medicine.  ​

When turmeric and ginger roots are fresh they look alike on the outside. It is important to give them a good look over as one is not interchangeable with the other. Fresh ginger root has a light yellowish-brown skin, whereas turmeric has an orange hue to it. When you peel turmeric it reveals a beautiful orangey golden color. Turmeric is sold raw or it is boiled and dried before being processed into the different forms we find in the spice aisle of our grocery stores. 

Turmeric Smell and Taste

The scent of turmeric is earthy and much more pungent than ginger. The taste has a slight bitterness to it followed by some earthiness and aromatic tones, but generally, the taste can be considered mild. There really isn't too much of a difference in taste between the raw turmeric root and the dried and ground powder. Overall, the smell and taste of turmeric are quite pleasant. 

Turmeric itself is not spicy like a chili pepper, and it also doesn't have that zestiness that ginger has; But it does pair perfectly with ginger, chilies, and other spicy ingredients. While the taste may not be strong, turmeric does add a nice touch to countless foods―it's not just for curry. 

What Turmeric Is Used for

Culinary Uses: In Indian and many other Asian cuisines, turmeric is used as a space for dishes and drinks. It is often combined with aromatic spices to create a range of seasoning mixes, like curry powders and more. Whether you make your own curry spice mixes or pastes, turmeric is often an ingredient called for.

Many curry recipes use not only the prepared curry spice mix or paste, but additional fresh or ground turmeric powder. This results in the curry having that golden color that makes the dish so attractive. 

Did you know that it isn't the only curry that gets its yellow color from turmeric? The golden root is a very common ingredient in many of the foods in our grocery store. It is used widely because it naturally and inexpensively gives foods an attractive yellow color. In some cases, turmeric is used instead of saffron since they yield a similar color.

The trick is to pay attention to food labels so that you aren't paying saffron prices for much less expensive turmeric. The following foods can all have turmeric added to them so they achieve their signature shade of yellow: mustard, mayonnaise, yogurt, salad dressings, margarine, chicken broth and bouillon cubes, spice mixes and more. 

It isn't that it's a bad thing that turmeric is added to many foods, in fact, turmeric is quite healthy; it is simply the fact that one must be aware of what they are paying for and consuming. 

Commercial DyeIn addition to dyeing foods, turmeric is used to color fabrics and yarns. 

Medicinal and Cosmetic Uses: Throughout Asia, and in many traditional Eastern medicines, turmeric is prized for its many health benefits. The golden "miracle" spice, as it is sometimes referred to, is used to for its antibacterial and antiseptic properties, as an antioxidant, to help fight inflammation, to treat arthritis, to detoxify, to balance blood sugar, to improve brain function, heart disease and so on. 

Turmeric is also used in skin care regimens, as it helps to treat a wide range of skin problems and is a cleanser and anti-aging treatment.