Yellow gold Turmeric is, to my palate, indelibly associated with Indian cuisine, which is why, when I taste it in non-Indian dishes, it comes as a bit of a surprise. I remember tasting it once at a cheap Spanish restaurant (in Hong Kong), where the cooks substituted it for the much more expensive saffron (only the colours are similar; the flavours are a world apart), and at Cha Ca La Vong, in Hanoi, Vietnam, where the spice was a key part of the restaurant's signature dish of fish with rice noodles, vegetables, peanuts, fish sauce, chillies and lots of fresh herbs, including dill.
Turmeric is mostly sold as a dried, ground spice, but it starts off as a rhizome that you can buy fresh at shops specialising in Indian and Southeast Asian ingredients. The fresh rhizome looks rather like ginger root, but when you slice through the papery skin, you'll see the flesh is a vivid yellow-orange, instead of ginger's pale tan. After being dried and ground, the bright colour is usually an indication of its freshness, because it fades with age. Dried turmeric often makes up a large portion of Indian spice mixtures, where it contributes not just colour but also a distinctive, slightly bitter flavour. Turmeric is believed to be an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial, and is said to be beneficial for people suffering from diabetes, skin disease and heart and memory problems.
Take care when using turmeric - both fresh and dried - because it stains (it's also used as a natural dye for cloth): if you slice the rhizome, your hands and cutting board will turn yellow.
When used sparingly, dried turmeric lends complexity to food without being obvious. I like to mix a small amount of it with other dried spices such as ginger, paprika and cumin, and use it for meat and dried fruit tagines. For aloo bonda - one of my favourite Indian snacks - I add turmeric to both the filling (which contains mashed potato, cumin, mustard, fresh ginger and fresh and dried chilli), and to the chickpea flour batter the potato balls are dipped in before being fried.