A Golden Harvest

Turmeric tubers being spread out for drying

On a sweltering summer’s 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-19 years, when work was scarce and travel restrictions made it impossible to seek employment in neighbouring districts.   

We were on an important mission – to find a ‘kopparige’ or large iron wok traditionally used to boil harvested turmeric rhizomes. 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 they recognized, 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 copper ‘hande’ – a barrel with two heavy metal rings for handles — in a pile of used vessels up for sale in a shop.

Turmeric isn’t a commonly cultivated crop in the regions around Navilu Kaadu as it needs regular watering. Farmers here follow rain-fed farming.

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

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

We washed the harvested tubers clean of 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 mechanized for larger harvests. Women then pounded the dried and polished rhizomes to smaller bits. The turmeric bits were milled to fine powder in the local flour mill.

Boiled turmeric tubers being spread out to dry on a mat of cocunut frond
Mahadevamma and Chinnamma merrily pound the turmeric tubers to smaller bits for mlling

I later discovered an easier process that skipped the boiling altogether. The tubers are just washed, sliced thin, sun-dried and then powdered.

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

Freshly milled turmeric powder

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 the bright yellow tint. It is a potent anti-inflammatory, 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 the curcumin in turmeric and its terrific therapeutic attributes are available to the human body.

While the West is going bonkers over their belated discovery of the now-hip turmeric latte, here are a pair of recipes – the first, a cherished age-old recipe for turmeric-laced Shunti-Jeerige Kashaya with its origins in the misty Sahyadri mountains, the land of my ancestors. The spice-infused Kashaya makes for a soothing, warm brew that relieves even the most bothersome bouts of cold and cough.

The second is an easy recipe for turmeric curry or Arishinada Gojju.

Shunti-Jeerige Kashaya: Bring 2 cups of water to boil. Add 2 tbsps crushed coriander seeds, 1 heaped tbsp crushed cumin seeds, 1/2 tsp fresh turmeric powder, 1 tsp crushed pepper, 1-inch crushed fresh ginger, 2 tbsps jaggery powder. Simmer till the quantity reduces to half. Strain the decoction. Add piping hot milk and blend till frothy. Sip the hot, flavourful beverage twice a day, and savour the warmth engulfing your senses, shooing away the cold.

Arishinada Gojju: Pressure cook two plump 3-inch raw turmeric tubers in a little water. Dry roast 6 to 7 pepper corns. Add a spoon of split black gram or uddina bele, half-a-spoon of mustard seeds, 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 to suit your palate in a pan, till it thickens. Savour with hot rice and a dash of ghee.