In most Indian homes, we do not down turmeric lattes: Instead we use it every day (in its ground form, rather than as the fresh orange root), both for its color and its anti-inflammatory qualities (though most spices, in fact, are touted for their health benefits).
Turmeric, in its most basic application, is added to lentils to give them a sunny yellow color. And while most Indian tables are incomplete without a bowl of some sort of lentils, there are a countless variations, and an even greater number of preparations, throughout the country. In Bengal, for example, you’ll find that split red lentils called masoor dal hold center stage alongside yellow split lentils called moong dal.
And for each variety of lentil, there is a particular method of preparation, a distinct prescription of tempering. It is in this simple process—spices crackled in hot oil or ghee to release their flavors, then stirred into the pot of cooked lentils—that the magic of everyday Indian cooking lies.
In my earliest days of cooking Bengali food in the US, I was hard-pressed to find turmeric. And while the food tasted good, something was missing (though it took me several bowls of lentils to realize what is was).
Turmeric reentered my kitchen the first time my mother came to visit me, carrying her own stash from India. One evening, I returned home from work to find my apartment infused with the most amazing scent of childhood. My mother was cooking orange lentils, a treat she’d make in her Calcutta kitchen in the mild Indian winter, when tomatoes are at their best.
When I peered into the pot of golden lentils and asked her how she managed to get the sunny color, it took my mother some time to even understand my question. Then she said, “Why, with holood of course.” That someone might even attempt to cook everyday Indian food without turmeric was inconceivable to her.
That is how we use turmeric in the Indian kitchen, as a cohort and companion to other spices and flavors, all of which have their space, place, and purpose.
Serve these lentils as a first course, with steaming white rice or freshly made flatbreads.
Bengali Orange Lentils with Cilantro and Tomatoes
- 3/4 cup split orange lentils
- 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
- 2 medium-sized Roma tomatoes, chopped (or 1 cup of drained chopped tomatoes from a can)
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
- 4 green Serrano chiles, tops removed, cut in half lengthwise
- 3 tablespoons neutral oil, such as grapeseed
- 1 small onion, diced (about 1/4 cup)
- 2 teaspoons ghee or clarified butter
- 1 1/2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds
- 1 or 2 dried red chiles
- Torn cilantro, for garnish
The Perfect Basmati Rice
- 1 cup of basmati rice
- 1 1/2 cups of just-boiled water
- 2 tablespoons canola oil
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
What ingredient would be inconceivable for you to cook without? Tell us in the comments below.