Turmeric is a spice derived from the bulbous growths of the roots from a member of the ginger family of herbal plants. It is native to the tropics of Asia; 95% of the world’s cultivation and processing of turmeric originates in India. Most of it is boiled, dried, ground to a powder, and mixed with other spices into South Asian flavored curries. Its signature characteristic is a rich, orange-yellow color and smoky, mildly bitter mustard taste. The raw root rhizome is often quite expensive, but the one most often mentioned substitute for turmeric is even more expensive.
That substitute for turmeric is saffron. Given the exorbitant price of the dried, yellow stigmas of the saffron flower, the substitution equation should probably be reversed. It infuses any dish with a similarly bright yellow color but is not as pungent in taste. From the earliest years of Europe’s spice trade, the scientifically named Curcuma longa plant has been nicknamed “Indian saffron.”
The active ingredient and pigment in turmeric is called curcumin. In addition to its use as a cooking spice, it was used as a textile dye and continues to be used as a coloring additive to many food products including prepared mustard paste. Although quite different in taste, dry mustard powder is also a suitable substitute for turmeric.
Fresh or pickled turmeric root and turmeric infused oils are uncommon, but powdered turmeric is readily available at most markets around the world. Together with other spices, notably ground fenugreek seeds and cumin, turmeric is one of the key ingredients in curries. Therefore, while not exactly a substitution, curry powder can certainly be used. Likewise, though they impart a dark brown color, both fenugreek and cumin have taste profiles that are quite similar to turmeric.
Turmeric has a popular reputation for significant health benefits. Believed to be an antiseptic and antibacterial agent, it has been traditionally used as a disinfecting cosmetic product. The healing spice has also been consumed for a variety of digestive and intestinal ailments. Some research suggests it may have beneficial effects against cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. If true, there is unlikely to be an equal substitute for turmeric.