In the sparcely populated northern stretches of the central Brazilian state of Goiás, where the cerrado that covers much of central Brazil begins to give way to the rain forests of the Amazonian basin, lies the hamlet of Mara Rosa. Although Mara Rosa counts only about 300 families, almost all of them share an occupation - they are all turmeric farmers.
Turmeric (called curcuma in Portuguese) is an essential spice in the Brazilian pantry, even though it originated in Asia, like its botanical cousin ginger. Brazilians use the spice not only for its earthy, almost musty, flavor but also for the way it imparts a brilliant yellow color to dishes in which it is employed. As a food colorant, turmeric often serves as a substitute for saffron, which also give dishes a golden hue, but which is infinitely more expensive than turmeric. Alternative Brazilian names for the spice, such as açafrão-da-terra meaning saffron-of-the-earth, demonstrate the link between turmeric and saffron in Brazilian gastronomy. In fact, many Brazilians simply call turmeric açafrão, and are perhaps unaware of the existance of true saffron, which can only be found in the best, most expensive gourmet shops in Brazil's bigger cities.
Turmeric has been grown in Mara Rosa since the 17th century, but it's only recently that local growers have banded together as a turmeric-growing cooperative, Cooperaçafrão. The aims of the cooperative are to stabilize and increase the price they are paid for their harvest, to improve cultivation yields through techniques such as crop rotation, and to restrict sales from the co-op to pure, dehydrated rhizomes of turmeric. Very little whole turmeric is sold directly to consumers, and the bulk of the co-op's sales are to spice companies, who grind the rhizomes and package the spice for consumers.
For most North Americans and Europeans, the color and taste of turmeric is primarily associated with Asian food, especially Indian food in which turmeric is an essential ingredient of most curry powders. In Indian cuisine, however, turmeric is normally mixed with other spices in the creation of spice powders and pastes, so the flavor of turmeric doesn't shine through. In Brazilian cuisine, where it's used alone, the intense and distinctive flavor of turmeric is allowed to be the dominant spice note in many dishes. Tomorrow, Flavors of Brazil will publish a typical Brazilian recipe which gives turmeric a starring role.