Hunting for golden dust

Ramya Coushik narrates her yellow-hued adventure as a newbie farmer trying to cultivate turmeric, that champion among Indian spices.
Last Updated 18 December 2022, 02:01 IST

On a sweltering summer afternoon, I drove around frantically, popping in and out of villages in Navilu Kaadu’s vicinity. A pair of boys barely out of their teens led the way on a motorbike, while two more rode with me in the car. This motley bunch of boys were farmhands-on-call at Navilu Kaadu during the Covid years when work was scarce and travel restrictions made it impossible to seek employment in neighbouring towns and districts.

We were on an important mission — to find a ‘kopparige’ or large iron wok traditionally used to boil freshly harvested turmeric tubers. Turmeric curing had come to a grinding halt at Navilu Kaadu without a suitable container to boil the produce in. We had enquired in three villages with no luck.

Our farmhands were in it for the joy ride, waving merrily at passersby while I tore my hair out in frustration.

The husband eventually came to the rescue. He combed the length and breadth of Nanjanagudu town and found a beautiful ‘hande’ — a copper barrel with two heavy metal rings for handles — in a pile of used vessels in a shop.

Turmeric isn’t a commonly cultivated crop in the regions around Navilu Kaadu as it needs regular watering, hence our predicament with finding suitable curing equipment. Farmers in the area mostly grow rain-fed crops. A year prior, we had decided to make the most of our prolonged pandemic-induced stay on the farm and had procured turmeric rhizomes from Salem for planting. Women from the neighbouring village helped sow the rhizomes in May. We laid out drip irrigation lines to water the crop.

The rhizomes soon sprouted, grew lush green leaves standing two feet high and multiplied beneath the soil for the next few months. The crops were raised without a spot of chemical fertiliser or pesticide. We nourished the soil at intervals with Jeevamrutha, a fermented culture of good soil bacteria.

Between March and April, of the following year, the turmeric leaves started to turn yellow, a sign that the crop was ready to be harvested. I was thrilled to see dinnerplate-sized tubers beneath the ground.

We washed the harvested tubers to remove soil residue. We separated the mother rhizome from the fresh tubers and boiled them in the said ‘kopparige’ till the tubers turned tender. The boiled tubers were spread out to dry in the sun for over a week. We then polished the dry tubers by rubbing them in jute sacks. This process is mechanised for larger harvests. Women pounded the dried and polished rhizomes into smaller bits. The turmeric bits were milled to a fine powder in the local flour mill.

The ochre of the turmeric powder and its earthy aroma were a feast to the senses. Our porch turned golden-hued with a veil of yellow powder glistening like pixie dust in the enchanting rays of the waning sun. The entire batch of produce was snapped up by friends, and the sense of accomplishment we felt as newbie farmers was priceless.

Our stock of turmeric from that harvest flavours many a dish in our kitchen. It goes into an immunity-boosting drink too each morning — a blend of half a teaspoon of turmeric powder with a pinch of pepper powder in half a cup of warm water.

Why add pepper? Curcumin, a phytochemical in turmeric gives it a bright yellow tint. It is a potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agent with a host of other healing attributes. Curcumin by itself isn’t efficiently absorbed into the bloodstream and needs assistance from Piperine, a naturally occurring organic compound in black pepper. Piperine ensures that the curcumin in turmeric and its terrific therapeutic attributes are available to the human body.

While the West is going bonkers over the belated discovery of the now-hip turmeric latte, here’s an easy recipe for turmeric curry or ‘arishinada gojju’ from the misty mountains of Sahyadri, the land of my ancestors.

Arishinada gojju: Pressure cook two plump three-inch raw turmeric tubers in a little water. Dry roast six to seven peppercorns. Add a spoon of split black gram or uddina bele, half a spoon of mustard seeds, and a spoon of sesame seeds and roast them well. Grind the roasted ingredients with the steamed turmeric, a cup of grated coconut and a marble-sized tamarind ball with a little water, to a smooth paste. Boil the paste with salt and jaggery in a pan, till it thickens. Savour with hot rice and a dash of ghee.

Rooting For Nature is a monthly column on an off-kilter urban family’s trysts with nature on a natural farm.

The author chipped away at a software marketing career before shifting gears to independent consulting and natural farming. She posts as @ramyacoushik on Instagram. Reach her at bluejaydiaries@gmail.com

(Published 17 December 2022, 19:52 IST)

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