The Arabic word for turmeric (Curcuma longa), a spice extracted from a perennial plant hailing from the Indian sub-Continent, is kurkum (كركم), which comes from an ancient Semitic root; the Assyrian kurkanū already denoted turmeric (which was used for medicinal purposes, especially for intestinal blockages), with saffron being azupirānu, the etymon of the Arabic word za’farān (زعفران). It is also related to the Sanskrit word kuṅkuma, which referred to both saffron and turmeric. In Greek and Roman times, the spice does not appear to have been used in food. The earliest use of turmeric was as a dye.
When Marco Polo encountered turmeric in China, he described it as “a vegetable which has all the properties of the true saffron, as well the smell as the colour, and yet it is not really saffron. It is held in great estimation, and being an ingredient in all their dishes, it bears, on that account, a high price.”
Many Muslim scholars considered kurkum a synonym for saffron, but it was sometimes applied to the root of the saffron plant, which is why another name for turmeric was ʿurūq ṣufr (عروق صفر), ‘yellow roots’. In addition, it could also refer to greater celandine.
Muslim physicians though it was useful against mouth ailments and haemorrhoids (al-Kindī, 9th c.), as well as poisons (al-Bīrūnī, 10th/11th c.). According to the Andalusian botanist Ibn al-Baytar (d. 1248), turmeric was beneficial for skin diseases, to strengthen the eyesight and even in the treatment of insanity.
In the medieval Arabic culinary tradition, kurkum appears only once, to colour sparrow meat, in a recipe from Mamluk Egypt. However, it is not unlikely that in a number of cases, turmeric was used instead of saffron.
In medieval Europe, turmeric was called ‘Indian saffron’ and was a cheap alternative to the very expensive saffron.
Today, turmeric is most associated with Indian cuisine where it is a staple spice and colouring agent, extracted from the roots of the plant. Not surprisingly, the country is also the world’s largest producer of the spice.