A cousin to ginger and galangal, turmeric is an intriguing source of sharp, earthy aromas and pleasantly bitter flavors. The pale green, pencil-thin rhizomes of young Curcuma domestica (also known as C. longa) dry to a yellow-orange and are even more richly colored beneath their skin. Clearly of South Asian origin, most turmeric used today is grown in India. Early on, its trade beyond the Indian subcontinent utilized overland caravans to reach the Assyrians and Sumerians of Asia Minor.

By the eighth century CE, turmeric was being traded westward across the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea in dhows, reaching both Yemen and East Africa, including the Mascarene Islands of Mauritius, Réunion, and Rodriques. It was transported across Sub-Saharan Africa along caravan routes controlled by Berber, Bedouin, and Jewish traders. Dhows had also carried it eastward to China by the seventh century, where both its cultivation and use spread. Marco Polo saw it growing not only in China but on Sumatra and along India’s Malabar Coast, as well.

There appears to be a different route for the diffusion of the names for turmeric, however, one that likely involves Ashkenazi Jews in its journey along more northerly routes. Terms cognate with the Hebrew kurkum appear in Yiddish, Greek, Italian, Bulgarian, Russian, Ukranian, Korean, Finnish, Norwegian, German, Estonian, Czech, Croatian, Dutch, Breton, Catalan, Spanish, and even Korean. The notion that the English term turmeric comes through French from the Latin terra merita, or “meritorious earth,” because of the visual resemblance of turmeric powder to precious minerals seems to me to be apocryphal. Turmeric and kurkum are likely related etymologically by their reference to the yellow root, as terms for this plant in other languages signify.

Green, Aliza. Field Guide to Herbs and Spices. Philadelphia: Quirck Books, 2006.
Hill, Tony. The Contemporary Encyclopedia of Herbs and Spices. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2004.
Katzer, Gernot. “Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages.” http://gernot-katzers-spice- pages.com/engl/index.html. Accessed May 8, 2013.
Sortun, Ana, with Nicole Chaison. Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean. New York: Regan Books, 2006.
Image Credit: http://bit.ly/2d7EZhU
With permission from: 
Gary Nabhan’s Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey
University of California Press