The Second Globalization of Turmeric

For centuries, turmeric has categorically been the South Asian spice. But, in recent years, it has exploded throughout the West, from face masks to lattes and beyond.

Dur e Aziz Amna

June 23, 2021

The Second Globalization of Turmeric
Turmeric root and powder (Trong Nghe, Creative Commons)

I have a strong memory from my adolescence of leaning over a sink, scrubbing off a crusty mask of turmeric, chickpea flour, and water. I hated the chalky smell of the mixture, but my aunt was convinced that the concoction, slathered generously onto my face, would rid me of acne and all other skin-related vagaries. For what it’s worth, it didn’t work — home remedies seem to work only on their true believers.

There is an unspoken magical power that many South Asian households ascribe to turmeric. It’s used abundantly in food, from dal to vegetable curries. It has tremendous religious and cultural significance — from ubtan ceremonies at Pakistani weddings to haldi ceremonies at Indian weddings, in which women take turns applying a paste of turmeric, rose water, and sandalwood onto the bride-to-be’s face, hands, and arms. Turmeric also has medicinal uses, likely rooted in Ayurvedic and Unani-Tibbi practices. Warm haldi doodh makes for a common treatment for mothers healing from labor and childbirth, or those recovering from injury or illness. 

For decades now, turmeric has categorically been the South Asian spice. But in recent years, the use of turmeric has exploded throughout the West. Haldi doodh has become golden milk, and turmeric has shown up in everything from wellness shots and tea cakes to Sephora face masks. In 2016, Google called turmeric a “breakout star,” with searches increasing 300% in the U.S. within five years. So, how did turmeric become a darling in the West?