« Coconut milk plus avocado (Recipe: avocado coconut milk ice cream) {gluten-free} | Main | Lemons, flamenco, and a summer sangria recipe »

Turmeric (Recipe: saag paneer -- spicy spinach with cheese) {vegetarian}


What do margarine, Domino's Pizza grilled chicken, chow-chow relish and monks' robes have in common?

They all get their bright yellow color from turmeric.

What do curry powder, ras-el hanout, hawayij, and tandoori spice rub have in common?

They all get their bright color from turmeric.

One of the world's cheapest spices, in contrast to the very expensive saffron for which it's often substituted, turmeric is used to add color -- in fact, it stains everything it touches -- but it does have its own distinct flavor: earthy, musky, and bitter.

More than 90 percent of the world's supply of turmeric, a member of the ginger family, comes from India; Alleppey (darker, more delicate in flavor) and Madras (lighter, most common in curry powder) are the best grades. It's also produced in China, Haiti, Indonesia, Jamaica, Malaysia, Pakistan, Peru, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.

The rhizomes, which resemble the structure of ginger ("hands" and "fingers"), are sold fresh, but more commonly in the West, we buy it dried and ground. Stored in a glass jar or tightly sealed tin, turmeric will keep in the pantry for up to two years. It pairs well with a wide range of foods, including fish, cauliflower, squash, chicken, coconut, beef and lentils.

Do you think that, when Marco Polo discovered turmeric on his travels in China in the late 13th Century, he imagined that some day it would be used to make oh-so-yellow hot dog mustard?

Saag paneer -- spicy spinach with cheese

Tart cheese (easy to make at home, as you can see in this great how-to video, or purchase from an Indian grocery) and spicy spinach combine in this classic recipe. If you can't find paneer, use farmer cheese from the supermarket. Serves 6.


1 10-oz bag spinach, washed and trimmed
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp paprika
1 tsp garam masala
Dried red chiles, to taste (1 for a mild dish)
1/4 cup water
3 Tbsp ghee or clarified butter
8 oz paneer or farmer cheese, cut into chunks


In a large pot, add first 7 ingredients; cover and cook over medium heat for 6-8 minutes, until spinach is completed wilted.  Add contents of the pot, including all liquid, to the workbowl of a blender, and process to a smooth puree. Place in a serving bowl. In a frying pan, heat the ghee until it is very hot, and add the cheese. Cook, stirring constantly, until the cheese is lightly browned, 2-3 minutes. Add to the spinach, and serve hot.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]

More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:

Onion bhaji
Pumpkin stew
Egg curry

Refrigerator zucchini pickles
Bread and butter pickles

Disclosure: The Perfect Pantry earns a few pennies on purchases made through the Amazon.com links in this post. Thank you for supporting this site when you start your shopping here.


I really love the idea of using natural foods n spices as food colouring. Now I know what gives hot dog mustard its bright cheery hue :)

This is one of my favorite Indian dishes! I love the mild taste of the paneer with the delicious, earthy, and amazing depth of flavor of the saag. I recently made my own paneer, and it was so much better than you can get from the grocery store (and so simple to make!).

I would have to skip the peppers(allergic) but the rest of it sounds mighty tasty.

Delicious! We love saag paneer and go crazy with Indian take-outs when we're in London. Make it myself? Hmmm... it's newver been on my radar to make, though I'm sure I could. Funny how certain foods achieve a sort of "we order it, we don't make it" status!

I love Saag Paneer from this great place in NYC. I have given up ordering it as "take-out as it inevitably arrives tasting like mush that was made about a week ago. I have never thought about actually making it! Thanks for the great recipe Lydia!

Thanks for the recipe. I have some leftover paneer that I made the other day; I think I've decided how to use it now :)

Such a beautiful colour isn't it. I love how foods can be used to give their natural colour to stuff, it's mother nature at her best really isn't it.

We use turmeric here in Minas Gerais in chicken and rice dishes, galinhadas. It is known as earth-saffron or root-saffron. I love Saag with anything and I obviously will have to get to work making my own paneer, because I'm not going to find it here. We do have lots of fresh, raw milk though. Thanks Lydia

Ahhh...I love saag paneer! Turmeric has health benefits too, so I hear!

As an Indian you know this is one essential spice in my pantry. And as a Sikh Punjabi I am sure you know how much I love Saag paneer ;-) Lovely to see this here!

Actually, the yemenite spice is Hawayij, with a j, in case you're every looking for it. And, to further complicate, there are two versions - one called Hawayij for soup - which has the turmeric, cumin, etc, and one called Hawayij for Coffee, which is another spice mix that resembles a chai tea spice mix, but intended for black arabic coffee.

The soup is insanely useful in everything from meats, vegetables, and .. yes.. soup. Try it sometime!

I can eat saag paneer until I fall over and my stomach explodes. Seriously. LOVE IT. I've never tried to make it, though, so now I'm going to have to give it a try!

Noobcook, turmeric will give everything you own that bright yellow hue, so be careful when using it!

Jason, how did you make your paneer? And how did it come out? It's always fun to know that making things from scratch is easier than you think it will be.

Peabody, peppers are great, but always optional.

Ann, you're so right. There are lots of foods that I get as take-out that I'd never consider trying to make. General Gau's chicken has to be top of that list for me.

Kathy, it's easy to make paneer. Maybe it would be a good video for your readers.

Tim, saag paneer is such a classic. It would be great with homemade paneer.

George, I took a class years ago in natural dyeing -- not for food, but for yarn. The range of color that can be coaxed out of foods is astonishing, and reminds you that not all natural dyeing yields a dull finished product.

Peter, do you use ground turmeric or the turmeric root? I've never had the root in my kitchen but would love to try it if I could find it in a local market.

Veron, I believe turmeric is used in Chinese medicine as an anti-inflammatory?

Meeta, thanks -- this is one of the first Indian dishes I tasted, way back when, and it's still a favorite.

Lily, thank you, thank you -- I will correct in the post. I didn't realize there were two types. I'm always grateful to readers for taking the time to correct me and to add to our collective body of knowledge.

Genie, making paneer is so much fun, especially if you experiment with different herbs and spices. Go for it!

I'd love to know more about hawayij -- an Israeli friend of Yemeni descent introduced me to it. I hope you'll do a post on it some time, Lydia.

im totally new to this dish but this sounds delicious!! i love turmeric i always have in my kitchen...

Turmeric is definitely a handy thing to have in abundance. I'm not a big fan of the flavor, but its definitely useful for coloring dishes. And the paneer sounds great!

i always get so nervous of cooking indian, but this sounds pretty easy to follow. and it looks delicious!

Very interesting that it's used to make mustard. Cool! I have some in my pantry. ;-)


Always have some turmeric on hand. So many uses for it. Thanks for that link to the video.

You totally pulled me in with that intro of information about turmeric. Very interesting!

I'm a bit sick of paprika being used to colour roast chicken, think I will try some tumeric instead. Amazing how staining it is.

Mae, I only write about ingredients in my pantry, so if I do add hawayij, I'll write about it.

Dhanggit, this is one of those Indian dishes that everyone seems to like. It's a great accompaniment to almost any Indian menu.

Mike, put turmeric in the "a little goes a long way" category!

Heather, if you start with store-bought paneer, this is super-easy to make, and a good recipe to try if you don't have a lot of experience with Indian cooking.

Paz, turmeric is indeed the source of that bright yellow mustard color!

Jude, what other recipes do you make with turmeric? I love it in Thai coconut curries.

Lulu, thanks!

Neil, there's a great turmeric chicken recipe on Rasa Malaysia this week. But oh yes, it stains.

Turmeric is a natural miracle drug, true snake oil. One of my experts calls it 'the world's most important herb.' Anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, good for liver/heart/cholesterol, alzheimers and much more. Lots of hard research. Easy to sneak into any food that's strong flavored, like chili, without ruining it. As for paneer, I cheat by using a mediumish tofu. Farmer's cheese? sometimes that means a hard cheese, not a soft curd, so only a 'like' would do. Do I dare try to make it?

very pretty yellow stuff. I prefer the yellow of saffron, but this one is good too.

I love rubbing some turmeric and curry powder on chicken and grilling it. Yum!

I need to use tumeric more...I have a big stash of the spice but have just not gotten to use it yet. Great recipe - looks so simple!

This past weekend in Jackson Heights, I was oggling bags and bags of tumeric. It is such a beautiful color, that I wanted to take it all home! Who says we don't eat with our eyes!

I've also read that it is a fairly powerful anti-inflammatory, so it's great for people with autoimmune conditions. But mostly, I like it cuz it's yummy and yellow. :)

Saag Paneer is one of the dishes on my must make list. Sounds great! Mmmmm, cheese.

Great post, as ever, but please do authenticity a favor and refer to the dish as Palak Paneer, not Saag Paneer if you use spinach!! I know the American-Born Indian crowd itself makes that mistake, but when people say Saag (even though it is the general noun for greens), they are referring to Sarson, or mustard greens.

Hi Lydia,
Life would be so bland and less colorful without tumeric :-) I try to use fresh tumeric whenever I get my hands on the rhizomes.

Thanks for the recipe. Saag (or palek, assuming it's the same thing?) paneer is one of my fav vegetarian dishes.

My little feet are wiggling with glee! I love palak paneer (saag paneer) and almost lived on it (and parathas) when I visited India four and a half years ago.

tee hee!!


I always think of turmeric as one of the 'magic spices' - its yellow powers are stunning. Lovely and delicious saag recipe!

Susan, using tofu is a great idea. But of course I'll say yes, make your own paneer -- it's fun and easy! Thanks for the good info about the health benefits of turmeric, too.

Lobstersquad, spoken like the true artist you are!

Tigerfish, doesn't the turmeric make chicken look beautiful?

Steamy Kitchen, it's easy, and one of many wonderful ways to add a little bit of turmeric into your cooking.

TW, I always buy my turmeric at the Indian markets like the ones in JH. It's much less expensive and also quite fresh.

Sean, you're absolutely right (and see Susan's very informative comment, too).

Natashya, I do hope you'll try it.

Anon, thanks for adding to our knowledge about this wonderful (but obviously often mis-named) dish.

Nora, you're lucky you can find the fresh root; I never seem to see it in the markets here (or at least not in the markets where I shop).

Jasmine, any time I can make your feet wiggle, I'm happy!

Marilyn, I'm completely seduced by the color of turmeric, even when I get it on my clothes or dish towels!

I'll never forget the first time I cooked with turmeric. It turned my black plastic cooking utensil green! I enjoyed reading all of the fun facts.

dear lydia,
in india turmeric is used as an antiseptic and to heal colds. i dreaded this but it worked - a glass of warm milk with turmeric before going to bed at night to heal a sore throat.

freshly ground turmeric root is also smeared over wounds.

Susan, I have a skirt that I wore all through Malaysia, that still has turmeric stains from10 years ago!

Bee, turmeric milk doesn't sound too bad, and if it works on a cold, it's worth a try. I might prefer my mother's cure of tea and honey though.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.