Turmeric has been a part of my diet since as long as I can remember. Referred to as haldi in Urdu, it is used by my mother and grandmother in a variety of dishes, medicinal treatments, and cosmetics. I remember as a child whenever I’d get sick – I got sick often, a combination of asthma, a weak immune system, and various food allergies – my grandmother would take a warm glass of milk, add a heaping teaspoon of honey, and dust it with haldi powder before serving it to me. This beverage would sooth my aching throat, suppress my urge to cough, and allow me to sleep uninterrupted. I had always accepted these various usages of haldi as some intrinsic maternal wisdom my mother and grandmother possessed, yet when I decided to explore the origins of turmeric’s medicinal usage I found a rich, culturally diverse legacy that has culminated in this hereditary knowledge. Curious, I phoned my grandmother to find out how she had been exposed to turmeric as a child.
As I talked to my grandmother she imparted the tale of how her own grandmother, my great-great grandmother, used to give her a large spoonful of honey dusted with turmeric whenever she had taken ill. My great-great grandmother was born in Hyderabad, India, around the year 1900 – my grandmother could not recall the exact date – and relocated to the town of Abbottabad in northern Pakistan following the partition of India in 1949. Now known for being the hiding spot of Osama Bin Laden, Abbottabad was still a small mountain village in the 1950s as my grandmother was growing up. My grandmother detailed the various ways in which haldi was used by her family and the residents of Abbottabad. Haldi, she said, was “used for everything”. Her mother would take powdered haldi, mix it with rose water and milk until it had the consistency of a firm dough, shape it into small golis, or tablets, which she would keep in a glass bottle and take daily for general health and ‘long life’. “Her hair was thick and beautiful until her late 90s,” my grandmother said, ascribing this indicator of health to the effects of turmeric. Turmeric was also used as a digestive agent and an appetite suppressant, “for when we were watching our figure.” Fresh turmeric root was finely chopped and boiled in water to make tea, which would alleviate indigestion and suppress appetite. Turmeric root could also be chewed for the same purpose. The tea was also used to prevent stomach worms in children with less-than-developed immune system; my grandmother referred to it as an “ancient antibiotic.”
Haldi was used not only as a preventative measure, but as a way to treat wounds and burns. While in Abbottabad, my grandmother’s mother and grandmother would cook many meals over an open wood fire, which occasionally resulted in burns. These were also treated with turmeric, which was combined with rose water to make a thick paste and then applied to the affected skin. While my great-grandmother and great-great grandmother cooked for the family, my grandmother would be spending most of her time outdoors, exploring the vast wilderness of Abbottabad which its namesake, Major James Abbott of the imperial British army, had fallen in love with in and written poems about in the 1850s. As a result of these outdoor adventures, my grandmother would frequently return to her home at sundown covered in all manners of scrapes and bruises. On such occasions, her grandmother would wash out her abrasions thoroughly, then apply a thick paste made with turmeric before tying them tightly with cotton fabric.
Turmeric was accessible to everyone. My grandmother’s mayi jee, a kindly woman who acted as the households live-in maid and served as a maternal figure for my grandmother, would go to the fields with a cohort of her peers in the early mornings – “when the men were still sleeping,” my grandmother hastily added – to bathe in the streams. These fields were home to all sorts of scorpions, and all too frequently one of the maids would be stung. Mayi Jee explained to my grandmother that whenever this would happen, they would take a fistful of turmeric, mix it with the nutrient-enriched soil of the fields, and apply it to the scorpion bite. Then they would bind the area around the wound tightly, so that blood and venom from the infected region would be drained, which would prevent the poison from circulating throughout their veins.
The usage of turmeric as a medicinal spice dates back 5000 years to the golden age of ‘Ayurveda,’ a Sanskrit term that translates to ‘the science of long life’. In ancient India, it was once considered a cure of jaundice, an appetite suppressant, and a digestive. The medicinal usages for turmeric in ancient India and China mirror what my grandmother described: it was used as an anti-inflammatory agent to treat gas, colic, toothaches, chest pains, stomach and liver problems, to heal wounds and lighten scars, and as a cosmetic.
So what bridged the gap between this ancient medicinal practise and my grandmother’s knowledge of the benefits of turmeric? While Ayurvedic practises were still alive and well on the Indian subcontinent, a new system of medicine was materialising throughout the Islamic world during late antiquity: Unani. Unani medicine developed as the previously itinerant and unsettled Arab tribes converted to Islam, which emphasises the importance of medicine in the Quran and the Hadith. According to Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, there are two kinds of exalted knowledge:
Ilm Din (knowledge of religion) and ʿIlm Ṭibb (knowledge of medicine), and the pursuit of both is binding on all Muslims as a farḍ al-ʿayn (individual obligation) as well as a farḍ al-kifāyah (communal obligation), along with caring for ill people and supplying required medicines, which falls under Amal Saleh (good deeds), encouraged for public ethics and heavenly rewards.
While Unani medicine was certainly advanced by the Arabs, the origins of its pathology can be attributed to Ancient Greece, and is found in the works of Hippocrates and Galen. The actual term ‘Unani’ comes from the Arab word يوناني, which translates to ‘Greek’.
Unani, claims historian Arshad Islam, is “based on ancient logic and timeless rules encapsulating a cosmological view of human health and the universe.” Its foundational elements are the four humours, which must be kept in equilibrium to ensure good health and well-being. As the Golden Age of Islam progressed, Unani evolved further as it was shaped by the medicinal sciences of peoples brought under Islamic conquest. During his reign from 786 to 809 AD, Harun Rashid, the Caliph of Baghdad and ruler of the Abbasid empire, invited several Indian medical experts to his capital city to help cure him of an illness. Ibn Dhan was one of these Hindustani physicians, and was appointed as the chief officer of the biggest hospital, or shifakhaana, in Baghdad. During this time Ibn Dhan translated some of the most famous Ayurvedic texts from Sanskrit to Arabic, and the medicinal knowledge found in them was incorporated into popular practise. As Indian historian Seema Alavi phrases, “Unani’s medical rationality thus derived both from Graeco-Roman philosophical traditions as well as Ayurvedic ideas.”
When Hindustan came under Muslim rule, first with the establishment of the Turkish Delhi Sultanate and later the Mughal empire, the conversation between Unani medical tradition and Ayurvedic science continued. This is also how the Unani tradition was introduced and popularised on the subcontinent, where it remained the primary standard of medicine until imperial Britain’s conquest introduced Western norms of medicine that disparaged indigenous science. While Unani incorporated ancient medical practises, classical science, and medieval pathology, and was thus a culmination of millennia of scientific research and philosophical evolution, the Western norms of science at the time were predicated on Enlightenment ideals, which scorned historical tradition and perceived that which it could not understand as ‘irrational,’ and thus ‘backwards’.
With anglicist reforms in the 1830s, nearly all institutions of Arabic and Urdu Unani learning were abolished, replaced by Western medical institutions. However, these reforms did not extinguish the “medical ethos and indigenous medical knowledge” imbued within the fabric of Indian society. My grandmother had repeatedly stressed to me during our phone call that her knowledge of turmeric was imparted to her verbally by her own mother and grandmother, and that they learned it from their mothers. While British imperialists were unsuccessful in eradicating this indigenous medicine from the collective Indian consciousness, more recent attempts to appropriate the spice have emerged. To contextualise this phenomenon, we must explore the classical roots Western interaction with Eastern spices.
Spice has been foundational to the Western perception of the East for millennia. This natural resource has always been coveted by Western civilisations, and has been foundational to trade relationships between the East and West. Historians argue that the spice trade during the period of classical antiquity actually eclipsed the famed silk road. As transportation technology developed and Eurasia was brought into the Medieval era, Europeans began journeying East and recording their so-called ‘discoveries’. Though turmeric had existed in Europe due to the Arabian spice trade since the classical period, it was Marco Polo who introduced Europeans to the origins of the spice, after travelling to China and India in 1280 and recording its properties and usage. Mita Banerjee argues that Marco Polo’s account of India in The Customs of the Kingdoms of India is as much of an economic document as it is a travel narrative, and in assessing the abundance of natural resources “which could thus be extracted and exploited,” he is pursuing an antecedent to bioprospecting.
Because he is lacking both the knowledge of these plant varieties, of the ways, in which they can be cultivated and the uses to which they can be put, the Western observer – in this case, Marco Polo – simply goes on to extract, appropriate and publicise this knowledge.
This medieval precedent for bioprospecting had been fully realised by the early modern period, in which European imperial powers scourged the globe for natural resources and indigenous populations to be exploited. One of the exemplary cases of this phenomenon is the way ‘curry’ was adopted into British cooking. ‘Curry’ reflects a wilful ignorance of the diversity of Indian food. In “Domestic Imperialism: Curry and Cookbooks in Victorian England,” Suzan Zlotnick argues that the incorporation of Indian spices and cooking practises – and the ubiquitous ‘curry powder,’ a pre-made mix of a few quintessential Indian spices, including turmeric – into British cookery was in itself an imperial project: a way for the British empire to assert itself over the Indian domestic sphere. Though the origins of the term ‘curry’ are debated, the most popular theory being that it is a mispronunciation of a regional dish called ‘kari,’ ‘curry powder’ became widespread in Britain and its colonies as a more affordable and convenient method of ‘currying’ tasteless Anglo-American dishes.
As an aside, I love the BBC original show The Great British Bake-Off, where contestants compete to win the accolade of best British amateur baker. Quite often, and to the surprise of the judges who are generally quite conservative British bakers, the contestants will use ‘exotic’ but still, as they argue, British spices in their pastries, breads, and cakes. Though recognising the diversity of contemporary Britain is important, I always find this appropriation of cooking practises from former colonies to be problematic as best, as it fails to recognise the imperial violence foundational to the widespread use of turmeric, ‘curry powder,’ and other spices in Anglo-American cooking.
Yet in our contemporary time, the appropriation of Eastern spices by Westerners continues unabated. Most recently, turmeric has started trending in food health blogs, cafes and restaurants, and the discourse upon spice. As a measure of frugality, I mostly cook in my apartment in the East Village, which means I’m generally unaware of the major food trends taking shape around me. I use a spice rack my mother gifted me when I moved out of my family home in Boston, which contains cardamom, turmeric, chilli powder, cumin, black cumin seeds, fennel seeds, curry powder – “for convenience,” claims my mother, bay leaves, cloves, coriander and some others I’m not able to translate into English. Yet sometimes circumstance forces me to eat out in the dynamic and trend-setting Manhattan restaurant scene. It was during one of these instances – I was at a cafe, meeting with volunteers for a benefit concert, that I noticed an odd menu item: a turmeric latte. I was perplexed, and so I ordered the $7 drink. What came to me several minutes later was not really identifiable as a latte, or even as a beverage worth the cost, yet it tasted very familiar. Then it hit me: this was poorly concocted haldi doodh, the mixture of turmeric powder, milk, and honey that my grandmother would make for me when I was congested, a drink vastly superior to the sad latte sitting before me. Haldi doodh has its origins in the ancient Ayurvedic science dating back millennia. Despite this, the cafe had taken the liberty of topping the spiced milk with milk foam – I implore you to never mix turmeric with any sort of foam, as instead of the light airy texture of milk foam in a traditional latte, when mixed with turmeric it results in an extremely grainy and dense consistency, not at all pleasing to the senses. When I relayed this anecdote to my grandmother, she stated that “westerners don’t know the proportion, they use excess of everything. We always use haldi in moderation.”
Interestingly enough, the Indian entrepreneurial diaspora has begun to capitalise on this appropriation of their cultural spice. A few years ago, a former student of my father’s sent us four crates of his new ‘health food product’ to thank my father for his help in supporting his business. The crates contained a vitamin drinks in four flavours, infused with turmeric. My family found them to be disgusting, yet when I invited one of my white friends to try this drink she found it quite tasty. Since that time, the brand has surged in popularity amongst its mostly white consumer base.
While the appropriation of Eastern cuisine is problematic in that it ignores the brutal colonial history of sourcing spices from the East, a more insidious form of colonialism and appropriation has emerged that threatens the traditional cultural practises, agricultural autonomy, and livelihoods of indigenous farmers in India: biopiracy.
Biopiracy is established upon the exploitative and appropriative paradigms of European imperialism. As European imperialists dehumanised, infantilised, and perceptively barbarised the indigenous peoples they colonised, they created an assumption that due to the “hybridisation of cultures, [indigenous] cultural practices were on the very of becoming extinct and thus had to be preserved through the “help” of the Western scientist,” in the form of an imperialist anthropology. This ‘preservation’ mentality extended to the non-human flora and fauna of the conquered territory. The biodiversity of newly ‘discovered’ territories “constituted as biodiversity which colonial eyes had never before beheld,” and thus incredibly hypocritically sought to conserve it; just as the colonised natives were perceived as being unable to preserve their cultural heritage, so too were they construed as being “incapable of cherishing or appreciating the biodiversity which surrounded them,” and thus being “ultimately incapable of preserving it.” For these European imperialists, notions of private property were inexplicably linked with practises of preservation, as the security of private property ‘protected’ the biodiversity and cultural heritage of the privatised land. Conversely, biodiversity and cultural practises that existed outside the realm of private property, as was the case in colonised territory, were construed as being threatened by the uncertainty associated with the European notion of the ‘public domain’. Thus, through an especially perverse logic, European imperialists sought to preserve the cultural practises and biodiversity of colonised lands that they were systematically eradicating by simultaneously appropriating and privatising them. We can see the contemporary traces of this colonial mindset in western patent laws:
Today’s patent law specifies in direct continuity with Marco Polo’s colonialist practices that such an availability of knowledge in the public domain legitimates its appropriation by the Western observer or scientist. Crucially, however, what is at stake here is a clash of epistemologies: The very notion of the public domain, Robinson emphasises, is a Western one; local and indigenous communities do not know such a concept
European notions of private property, public domain, and recently patent laws have been weaponised throughout history against the practises of colonised peoples.
Perhaps the most egregious manifestation of this colonial mentality presented itself when RiceTec, an American agribusiness, attempted to patent the Indian basmati rice and turmeric in 1997. Their patent was predicated on the fact that – from the imperial West’s point of view – while indigenous Indians were said to “culturally use these natural products,” ranging from turmeric to basmati to neem, they were not perceived to “possess scientific knowledge of the individual and intentional uses to which these products could be put.” In this instance, the burden of proof was placed on the Indian contestants of this patent, who had to provide evidence – which held up to Western legal standards – that India had held the knowledge about the “specificities and natural properties of basmati rice” long before RiceTec claimed ownership of it.
Indian activist Vandana Shiva was able to make use of ancient Vedic texts, such as the Atharva-Veda, which dates back to 1500 BC, to prove that Indian scientific knowledge of basmati rice long predated RiceTec’s existence, in a landmark legal case that resulted in the rightful termination of the U.S. patent. While colonists had once dismissed the scientific knowledge of Indians as merely cultural practises, the Atharva-Veda proved that cultural understanding is inseparable from scientific knowledge. Yet this case is representative of acts of appropriation and violence that result from a colonial disregard for indigenous science:
Shiva was hence able to win the patent case – to have the US patent revoked – because India possesses a written culture going back many centuries: Across the globe, however, many biopiracy cases have been lost because indigenous cultures are based on oral traditions and hence lack documents such as the Atharva-Veda.
This has not only caused a profound alienation of the impoverished agriculturist, but across India and the global south rural farmers have seen a massive increase in suicide rates.
Clearly then, the paradigms of the eradication of indigenous ways of life that both capitalism and European imperialism are predicated on are alive and well, and pose an imminent threat to the groups of people who continue to practise indigenous subsistence modes of behaviour outside the framework of capitalism.
Perhaps the most depressing implications of this are that we, as ordinary citizens, are nearly powerless to prevent this violent appropriation of indigenous spices. Yes, we can save the seeds we encounter before the ‘Big 6’ chemical companies, Monsanto and DowDuPont included, privatise them, but what can we do for those indigenous rural farmers, those safeguards of ancient medical and agricultural practises? If further generations continue to disparage the importance of the domestic sphere and continue outsourcing it, thereby stifling the potential for them, or the nannies and housemaids separated from their own children, to share the hereditary knowledge that has been de-institutionalised and delegitimised in the western social milieu, who will perpetuate this knowledge? Or is it that in these circumstances – in this suffocating global hegemony of capitalism – appropriation by Western science and culture is the only way to safeguard it? I am only comforted by the fact that the sources I’ve used in this exploratory essay are mostly authored by Indians and Arabs, and originate from the global south.
Alavi, Seema. “Islam and Healing: Loss and Recovery of an Indo-Muslim Medical Tradition,
1600–1900.” London: Palgrave Macmillan Limited, 2008. Accessed May 9, 2019.
Banerjee, Mita. 2019. “Biopiracy in India: Seed Diversity and the Scramble for Knowledge.”
Phytomedicine 53 (February): 296 – 301.
Chaki, Rohini. “The Subversive, Surprising History of Curry Powder.” Atlas Obscura, 9 April 2019.
Islam, Arshad. “Origin and Development of Unani Medicine: An Analytical Study.” Intellectual
Discourse 26, no. 1 (January 2018): 23 – 49.
Surh, Young-Joon, and Shishodia, Shishir. The Molecular Targets and Therapeutic Uses of
Curcumin in Health and Disease. New York, NY: Springer, 2007. Accessed May 9, 2019.
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Zlotnick, Susan. “Domesticating Imperialism: Curry and Cookbooks in Victorian England.”
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