What it might taste like, though, is a mystery: Does it have tomatoes, like Mexican salsa, or is it an Italian-style salsa verde?
Am I going to be chomping on turmeric, because that sounds intense, but then again, what does turmeric even taste like? Who knows, when its fresh version is usually hidden behind honey and acid in tonics and its powdered version usually more food dye than flavor.
But leave it to Cal, the chef at Chez Panisse and also author of Twelve Recipes (a book he wrote for his son entering his first year of college), to approach this somewhat obscure sounding condiment with his ever steady, guiding hand. (For even more guidance, watch him make the recipe here.) No need to tell us turmeric has a peppery, sort of medicinal flavor, or that this might be exotic for some—it’s simply presented (buoyed by his wit and warmth) as a recipe that’s special, thoughtful, and, as Cal approaches all his recipes, open to play.
He explains in the headnote:
The wonderful Niloufer Ichaporia King brings her exotic food and saffron-colored magic to Chez Panisse every year to celebrate Navroz, the Parsi New Year. One spring, she showed us the basics of this salsa: fresh turmeric, salt, and lime juice. She slices the raw, bright orange rhizomes into thin fragrant coins, leaving golden patches on our cutting boards that linger for days, and tosses them with lime and salt, ginger, and green chiles. When Niloufer serves this salsa on toast with goat’s-milk cheese, she calls it Krishna’s breakfast, named after not the god but a friend of hers who enjoys it with his morning tea. I was instantly hooked and now make it often, sometimes putting some or all of it in a blender or mortar when I want it a little juicier, and sometimes adding crushed coriander seeds (the otherworldly fresh green ones are especially good, if you can find or grow them), pounded garlic, basil, or mint.
Instead of calming turmeric's brace, the salsa's other equally assaulting components exacerbate the punch, and the physical journey of bringing the turmeric, ginger, chile, and lime together is equally enjoyable: After coming upon little turmeric fingers (for me, from a fancy Brooklyn grocery store, but you’ll also have luck at health food stores, Indian or Asian markets, or sometimes Whole Foods), you peel them, their earthy scent faintly perfuming.
You get your fingers completely stained while shaving little orange coins of the rhizome, followed by tinily mincing ginger and chile (the recipe calls for green, but we used red). The kaleidoscopic colors and shapes start bleeding together when mixed with salt and some squeezes of lime.
Spooned over eggs, fish, grilled chicken or lamb, roasted vegetables, any grain, or greens as a sort of salad dressing, the juicy yet chunky salsa is the most vividly I’ve tasted turmeric: It swirls around your mouth, fizzles into your nose just a little, and sizzles your throat as it goes down. This is a good thing—you will feel alive!
Even when I ate the salsa over boring grains or sautéed kale, I felt like my taste buds were waking up for the first time. Then I hunted for other dishes to put the magic potion on—ready and willing to be zinged again.
- 5 fresh turmeric fingers (about 3 ounces)
- 2 teaspoons minced or grated ginger (about 1 inch piece)
- 1 chili, such as a serrano or jalapeño, seeded and diced tiny
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- Juice of 1 or 2 limes
- Good olive oil, if needed
- Sugar, if needed
We've re-run and updated this post to include the video of Cal making the recipe.