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Turmeric (Recipe: saag aloo/potatoes with spiced spinach) {vegan, gluten-free}

Saag aloo

In days of old, when nights were cold, I used to spend a lot of time knitting.

Yarn shopping replaced clothes shopping as my favorite activity. I bought yarn wherever I found something out of the ordinary -- at a stall in Covent Garden, at a craft fair in New Zealand with Cousin Martin, at hidden-away sales of Uruguayan yarn in Manhattan --and eventually I took up spinning and dyeing my own yarn.

And that's why, long before I ever used turmeric in my cooking, I had some in my pantry. In the world of natural dyeing, turmeric turns everything it touches a golden yellow color; in cooking, it does the same thing.

One of the least expensive spices, turmeric really does stain everything it touches; for both reasons, it's a popular food coloring for sliced "American cheese", margarine, and ballpark mustard.


More than 90 percent of the world supply of turmeric, a member of the ginger family, comes from India; it's also produced in China, Haiti, Indonesia, Jamaica, Malaysia, Pakistan, Peru, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. The rhizomes are sold fresh (occasionally you can find fresh turmeric in Asian grocery stores) or sun dried, peeled and ground, which is how you buy it in most markets.

The color of turmeric varies from gold to yellow, depending on the variety -- not the quality -- of the rhizome. During cooking, all turmeric will darken, almost to black. It has a strong ginger-like taste, more bitter than saffron. Never buy ground saffron unless from a reputable vendor, or what you get might be saffron "cut" with turmeric; the color will be right, but the taste definitely will be wrong.

Turmeric's healing properties, as an anti-inflammatory and a treatment for digestive disorders, liver problems, wounds, and conjunctivitis, are well known to Ayurvedic and Chinese healers.

It's been twenty years or more since I spun and dyed a skein of yarn, but turmeric and margarine and ballpark mustard have been in my pantry ever since.


Saag aloo (potatoes with spiced spinach)

This dish was the perfect accompaniment to salmon tikka, but it's substantial enough to stand on its own as a vegetarian main course. I've cut the amount of oil in the original recipe way down, and used sugar substitute to balance the acidity of the tomatoes. Loosely adapted from Indian: A Culinary Journey of Discovery, by Mridula Baljekar, this recipe serves 4; can be doubled.


12 oz Yukon Gold or other new potatoes
9 oz fresh baby spinach leaves
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, cut in half and finely sliced
1 jalapeño pepper, minced (for a less spicy dish, remove seeds and ribs before chopping)
2 tsp mashed garlic*
2 tsp mashed ginger*
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground red chile pepper or red pepper flakes (mild or hot, to taste)
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
7 oz canned chopped tomatoes
1/2 tsp sugar or sugar substitute (I used Splenda)
1 tsp salt, or to taste


*To mash garlic and ginger, either use the side of your knife at a 20-degree angle to the cutting board, and scrape until the garlic or ginger break down, or place in a mini food processor with a few teaspoons of olive oil, and grind to a paste. You can use store-bought garlic or ginger puree, too.

Trim potatoes of any blemishes, and place in a pot of cold water. Bring to the boil, and cook for 15-20 minutes, until potatoes are tender. Drain, then soak in a bowl of cold water for up to 30 minutes to stop the cooking action. When the potatoes are cool, peel them if you wish (I don't), then cut into bite-size chunks.

WHILE THE POTATOES ARE COOLING, blanch the spinach in a pot of boiling water for 2 minutes, then drain. Transfer to a food processor and blend to a puree. Set aside.

In a medium sauce pan over medium heat, add the olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, and continue cooking 2-3 minutes more, until the onions are browned. Add the jalapeño, garlic and ginger, and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Then add the coriander, cumin, chile powder and turmeric, and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and their juice, and the sugar, and increase heat to medium. Cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes, until the tomatoes have reached a paste-like consistency.

Add the potatoes, spinach and salt, and cook for 2-3 minutes until the whole mixture is well combined. Serve hot.

More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:
Salmon tikka
Bread and butter pickles
Curried green tomatoes
Egg curry
Prawn fried rice
Saag paneer
Chicken satay

Thanks to my friend Bob for assisting with the photos for this post.

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.


Had no idea you could dye yarn with turmeric. Not that I WILL but love the idea that you can :) Must be a beautiful color.

I had no idea you were a knitter! I never could knit worth a darn. In church classes as a teenager we were supposed to learn, and I was a miserable failure at it.

I'm intrigued by the sound of this recipe, and I can imagine it with the salmon dish as a perfect dinner!

I did not know you were a knitter, either! So do you still knit? And spin and dye? I'm going to try my hand my dyeing one of these days, but with kool-aid. Although now I am tempted to try it with turmeric too :)

The saag aloo looks fantastic! I often stock the freezer with chopped spinach so I can make this when the crisper is empty.

thanks for the recipe. Will have to give it a whirl sometime this week, but first a trip to the market is required. I wish i could buy small amounts of spice instead of the usual size bottles. When will I use coriander again after this....better get the coriander recipes out Lydia haha

I just love saying aloo. aloo. aloo. aloo.

Great photo - the saag aloo looks delicious.

I have a fascination with knitting ... and a scarf that I have been making since my son was an infant. I can't seem to cast more than a perl switch -- again and again -- despite trying desperately to learn.

Now, on the other hand, I love and understand Indian food and this happens to be one of my very favorite dishes. You make it sound so easy ... Hopefully my kids will love it as much as I do.

Yum - I can see that I will be making a supply of garlic and ginger purees soon. I am going to make this one ASAP.

Turmeric is one of my favorite spices, and since I discovered it, I don't think that I've made eggs without throwing some in. I don't know what it is about the combination of flavors, but I love it! I also love Indian food, and this recipe sounds fantastic. Can't wait to try it!

Nupur: find your local hippie natural foods store. They are likely to sell the spices loose. Then you get get just a little at a time. It's also usually a cheaper way to stock up on things like cinnamon.

I love Indian food, this recipe looks very comforting and inviting.
I have many a shirt that has been "kissed" by turmeric!

It is almost lunchtime and I want this now!!As we say here, your photo "me dá água na boca", i.e. is mouthwatering. I think this will appear on the woodburning stove at my next Indian Food Fest here in São Gonçalo. We use turmeric a lot here to color rice or chicken dishes so I always have it powdered or dried whole on hand. It is called saffron of the earth. Thanks, Lydia.

I'm totally in the mood for Indian after this past Sunday's episode of The Next Iron Chef!

I'm not a huge fan of Indian food, but I do want to try something like this.

I love using turmeric with tofu to give it a brilliant golden color.

You dyed and spun your own yarn! I am amazed. What kinds of things did you knit? I've always loved the color of turmeric. In fact, I would say my kitchen walls are the color of turmeric.

I didn't realize turmeric was used as a coloring in so many foods. I've stained many spatulas and wooden spoons, so I'm not surprised you dyed yarn with it!

I always wondered how they got the cheese yellow and orange - just assumed chemical dyes (some probably do use chemicals!)

I wonder about this recipe - could you skip blanching and pureeing the spinach separately and just throw it in at the end; washed, drained and torn in pieces for the final saute and get a "wilted spinach" effect?

I don't like coriander, can I use something else?

In India ,women grind the turmeric root on a rough stone and apply it on their faces,hands and legs.This enhances the beauty and health of the skin.But most important benefit is it reduces hair growth on those places and decreases the need for waxing.As you say,it is a staple spice in everyday cooking in Indian food.

I use turmeric in pickled green tomatoes and when I make chicken pot pie, I give the filling a healthy glow with a tiny amount of it. It makes it more appetizing looking.
I also like it in rice.

I would have to make the spinach dish for one, as DH wouldn't get too excited over it. It looks very good to me.

Everyone: Yes, I used to knit a lot (on the subway, in classes, in meetings...), and did spin and dye my own yarns. When you knit all the time, it gets harder and harder to find really unusual yarns that you can afford, so spinning was the logical step. And of course here in New England, it's easy to find fleece to spin. I played around a lot with natural dyes, which yield a more muted color palette but one that's not harmful to the environment.

Milton, Penzeys sells spices in very small quantities. The Spice House does, too. Both great online sources.

Sarah, I don't knit much anymore, but I still offer tech support. Bring your scarf to Rhode Island!

Mary, I buy garlic puree at Trader Joe's, and ginger puree at Sid Wainer. But it's easy to make both at home.

Katie, eggs and turmeric seem to have an affinity for each other, don't they? Maybe it's the color...

Heidi, great advice. Thanks.

Natashya, I have shirts, and spoons, and dish towels that have turmeric stains all over them.

Peter, you have Indian dinners at the pousada? I'll have to come back for one of those!

Jessica, I just caught up on Next Iron Chef, so now I know what you mean. Yes, I've had Indian food on my mind, too, and there are more dishes to come.

Pam, this is a good dish to start with. It's not spicy, just loads of good vegetables.

Deena, tofu is such a great vehicle for almost any flavoring.

TW, yes, I was an earth girl -- baked bread and grew herbs and knit almost anything. I think Ted still has a sweater or two, as does my famous Cousin Martin. And there are scarves. Lots and lots of scarves. And I knit the top I was married in. Who knew???

Janel, you'll never look at yellow mustard again without thinking of this!

Carol, of course, you can shortcut and it will be fine.

Easy Recipes, you can omit the coriander and double the amount of cumin. Or you can substitute garam masala, which does have coriander but such a small amount that you might not taste it.

Ramya, thank you so much for adding to our knowledge of turmeric.

Barb, this dish smells so good when it's cooking that perhaps DH would be intrigued. Or just cut the recipe in half, and save some for lunch the next day.

I couldn't knit a thing but this dish looks so, so yummy, WOW!

it's the food of my people! totally grew up eating saag aloo with mom's homemade roti, or sometimes we'd substitute gobi (cauliflower) for the aloo (potatoes). definite comfort food for me.

I like mine especially with homemade (tart) yogurt on the side.

I'm a very "hands on" cook and you can always tell when I've been cooking with turmeric.... for days.....

Noble Pig, knitting is wonderfully rhythmic. Sometimes I miss it.

Blue Jean Gourmet, yogurt would be a great addition to this dish. I'm going to try that next time.

EB, same here. I have some "curry spoons" in my wooden spoon collection. They're the spoons I use for dishes with turmeric.

Fresh turmeric is a stable in my vegetable crisper whenever it comes in to my Co-op market. I love your use of it in this recipe! Saving it right now. Thanks so much for the link, Lydia. You're a dear!

Greetings from the "hippy natural food store" in Keene NH. Every year I put an ad in the local paper comparing supermarket herb and spice prices to my bulk prices. This year, turmeric from them is $39.12 converted to pound prices, from me is $6.50. The most absurd is bay leaves, $648.00 vs $8.10. And the clincher is from bulk it's fresher and better quality. And we get to reuse our jars! It's one of my favorite parts of my job -- I get to see and smell over 150 different ones. This recipe will be appreciated this weekend! (Another food to dye yarn is onion skins; just think of all the color variations.)

And --- in my refrigerated pantry, there is Swad brand Ginger & Garlic Paste, a welcome convenience.
Unrelated: if you enjoy the cooking movies, you want to see "The Grand Chef," a series made for Korean TV, with 20 some episodes (or more). There's love and romance, rivalry in the kitchen, a wise old chef, shots of raking sea salt, farming abalone, picking tea... We're getting it from Netfliks.

I love saag, i'm going to try this recipie with chicken so that it becomes a main dish

I really love this recipe! Thanks so much. I've been using Ghee instead of olive oil, and when I'm not too lazy I'll add some homemade paneer in, too. So damn good.

My Pakistani neighbors brought me some saag last night and it was outstanding. Theirs wasn't pureed and it wasn't super spicy. I could taste the garlic, yet it wasn't off-putting (I'm not a fan). Best spinach I've ever eaten! With a freshly baked slice of their version of naan, I totally enjoyed my impromptu meal. Theirs didn't have potatoes, meat or paneer. It was just the spinach mix. Delicious!

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