Kunyit – Turmeric

Kunyit - turmeric rhizome - Curcuma longa
Kunyit – turmeric rhizome – Curcuma longa

Kunyit is the Malay word for turmeric. It is from the ginger family. The Chinese call it yellow ginger (ooi keoh in Hokkien and wong keong in Cantonese and Hakka) after its deep orange coloured rhizome. It is used in South Asian curries and Nyonya recipes. Turmeric root has a sharp and distinct aroma in addition to its food colouring properties which makes it an indispensable ingredient in some of Malaysia’s popular dishes.

Turmeric for cooking is prepared in three major ways. The first method is made into a paste by either pouding (tumbuk) or grounding (giling) with a granite mortar and pestle. The other method is to boil the rhizomes for several hours, then dry it in a hot oven and finally ground it into powder. This entails a lot of labour. Nowadays, it is easier and cheaper to buy turmeric power from the grocery store. The third method is to deep fry the root slices in oil to flavour it.

Kunyit - turmeric rhizome - Curcuma longa
Kunyit – turmeric rhizome – Curcuma longa.

Turmeric in paste or powder form when added with chilli, shallots and other spices is used to cook curries. One or the other can also be used for making turmeric rice called nasi kunyit in Malay or ooi keoh pui in Chinese. Both can also be used to marinate and coat fish for deep frying which is one of my favourite. Turmeric flavoured cooking oil is used for deep frying fish for acar hu (Nyonya fish pickle).

Other than the tree types of preparation, turmeric is also finely chopped and added to nasi ulam. This is a dish of cooked rice mixed with finely shredded herbs like daun kaduk, daun cekur, lemon grass, shallots, kerisik (dry fried grated coconut), pounded salted fish and dried prawns. Like many Nyonya recipes, it takes a lot of time and effort to prepare, not counting shopping for the difficult to get ingredients which are available in selected wet markets only.

Kunyit - turmeric - Curcuma longa
Freshly sliced turmeric.

Besides being used an ingredient for delicious food, turmeric is widely used as skin care and for minor ailments. Its extract is added to bath soaps and facial masks. Curcumin, a compound found in turmeric is believed to be anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and antioxidant. With all these beneficial properties, I am glad that some of my favourite Nyonya food uses turmeric extensively.

Cekur – Sand Ginger

The scientific name for cekur is Kaempferia galanga Linn. It is a herb from the ginger family and also known as sand ginger. The Chinese call it sar keong in Cantonese and Hakka which both means sand ginger. The stemless leaves usually grow in twos and spread out flat on the ground in opposing directions. These leaves sprout from rhizomes growing in shallow soil. White and purple coloured flowers sprout from between the leaves.

Cekur - sand ginger - Kaempferia galanga Linn
Cekur – sand ginger – Kaempferia galanga Linn.

Both the leaves and rhizomes of cekur are aromatic. They are used regularly in Nyonya recipes. The leaves are finely shredded and commonly used in popular Nyonya dishes such as nasi ulam (Nyonya rice salad) and perut ikan (pickled fish stomach, vegetables and herbs curry).

Cekur - sand ginger - Kaempferia galanga Linn
Cekur – sand ginger – Kaempferia galanga Linn.

The rhizomes are small as compared to regular ginger. Their highly distinct smell is essential in Nyonya delicacies like Nyonya chang (Nyonya rice dumpling), chai thau kuih (radish cake), rempah udang (spicy dried prawns in glutinous rice roll) and hong bak (braised pork in aromatic spices).

The cekur plant - leaves, rhizome and roots
The cekur plant – leaves, rhizome and roots.

My late-mother had a simple recipe for cekur leaves that I used to enjoy eating as a kid. She would pound a handful of dried prawns and a couple of red chillies until they are mashed. That is eaten with four or five pieces of finely shredded cekur leaves. Unfortunately, when I was in my mid-twenties, I would get gastric pain each time I had hong bak, nasi ulam or anything that had cekur in it. I had to reluctantly cut down on these dishes. I never did find out why cekur caused this.

Close-up of the cekur rhizome
Close-up of the cekur rhizome.

Cekur propogates well in black soil with good amount of moisture and some shade. It can either be cultivated on the ground or in pots from a whole plant – leaves, rhizomes and roots. The rhizomes are highly prized. They are harvested by manually digging them out during the dry season when the leaves dry up and the rhizomes are enlarged.