The first time I came across the beverage at a chic London coffeeshop a few years ago, I goggled in disbelief. Turmeric latte, described in rather grand terms as “golden milk” (almond or coconut, of course) with a hint of cinnamon and black pepper, sweetened with agave syrup and… At that point, I stopped reading. Partly because I caught sight of the rather startling price. And partly because I could almost hear the delighted chuckles of thousands of Indian grandmothers.
I was briefly transported to my childhood, to memories of my mother trying to cajole and coerce me into drinking a glass of warm milk mixed with a pinch of turmeric powder and sweetened with refined white sugar – no nut milk or natural sweeteners there.
Without much effort, I can still recall the vile residual mouthfeel – it is only as an adult that I learned to describe the taste of turmeric in words like “pungent” and “peppery” – of turmeric milk, or haldi doodh as Hindi speakers in India know it, and palile manjal as my mother called it in our language Tamil. She was likely trying to soothe my sore throat or calm my feverish body with what many Indians still consider a liquid panacea.
The West has discovered turmeric only in the last decade or so and has lost no time in touting it as a “superfood”, adding fresh turmeric root to tea and coffee, in tall cold shakes and tiny potent shots.
Since that first encounter in London, I have found turmeric-laden beverages in (mostly hipster) cafes and coffee shops everywhere from San Francisco to Melbourne. But in India, turmeric has been a staple kitchen ingredient for a long time, used both in its original rhizome or root form, and, more commonly now, in powdered form. My own masala dabba (box containing seasoning and tempering ingredients) has always had turmeric powder amid the mustard seeds, fresh cumin and chilli powder – as my mother’s did and her mother before that.
Turmeric is used mainly as a colouring agent in traditional Indian cooking, especially in curries and gravies. Fresh and tender turmeric root is also made into haldi ka achar (turmeric pickle), which is tempered with heated oil on top, and in a few communities, the leaves are used as steaming “envelopes” for foods. Food writer and author of The Flavour of Spice, Marryam Reshi told me, “I used to grow turmeric in my home in Goa so that I could make a local sweet called patholyo (also patoleo or patholi). Coarsely ground rice is mixed with black jaggery and then steamed between two turmeric leaves; that is what gives it a unique floral flavour.”