The Indian monsoon is often romanticized in poetry, song, and love stories. However, as a child in my hometown of Mumbai, its arrival usually meant a week of cold, fever, and a sinus infection.

Though it would start with sniffles, it would quickly devolve into suffocating bronchial congestion and cough brought on by the humid weather.

The family physician Dr. Kamat would make a house call, prescribe antibiotics, and write my medical excuse for school advising bed rest for a week.

I’d have little choice but to stay home and ironically, watch the rain.

Being an underweight child, illnesses like fever always destroyed my appetite and led to more weight loss. To remedy this, my mother and my grandmother would feed me nourishing, hydrating Ayurvedic remedies between mealtimes.

To soothe the rib-rattling cough that came with it all, it was either a cup of an herbal decoction or my least favorite: turmeric milk.

There were many reasons I didn’t care for turmeric milk as a child, including the stipulation that I had to finish it while it was still steaming hot and gulp down the turmeric in one go.

Being sensitive to food textures and temperatures from a young age, I didn’t like the grainy turmeric paste that settled at the bottom of the cup and coated the inside of my tongue, mouth, and throat.

Plus, I wasn’t allowed to wash it away with a sip of water in case it might undo the good it was supposed to do.

Shared origins, shared aversions

My husband grew up in New Delhi where he was also prone to catching colds that quickly became sinus infections, like me. His illnesses weren’t related to the monsoons, as New Delhi is hot, dry and dusty.

His mother would complement allopathic medicine with Siddha medicine, an offshoot of Ayurveda from Southern India, like the ones from her own childhood.

She included a peppery version of turmeric milk in his healing regimen.

For most children of Indian heritage, turmeric milk is likely tied to reminders of being ill, the loss of playtime, and missing out on the fun of being a kid.

Although it’s always nice to be cared for, for me turmeric milk punctuates these cozy memories with reminders of a weak and aching body and the innocent longing to run outside and play with friends.

My husband and I moved away from home long before we knew each other. For a few years, we each separately enjoyed the illusion that we’d never be forced to drink turmeric milk again.

Revisiting our relationship to turmeric milk

Of course, when the novelty of making independent adult choices wore off, we realized it was so much more than an unpleasant brew.

It became an anchor in many ways: a reminder of the unconditional care of the people who nursed us back to health and the histories that stretch back into our ancestry.

When we started our life together as a married couple, my husband and I both missed our homes and families, and phone conversations with family elders were laced with care and concern.

If our voices betrayed a seasonal illness, we’d unfailingly be advised a range of healing measures, including the failproof staple: turmeric milk.

Turmeric milk is a reminder of the unconditional care of the people who nursed us back to health and the histories that stretch back into our ancestry.

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Continuing the legacy

As most young parents do, we debated over the best home remedies after our daughter was born. We each claimed our respective mothers’ remedies were the best.

While our young child never cared for turmeric milk, her associations weren’t like ours. Rather than memories of missing out or the strong, bitter flavor, she likely associates turmeric milk with a strange mix of nostalgia, debate, and discord between her parents.

This may be common among younger first generation immigrants who miss out on the cultural, regional, and sometimes familial medicinal ties to everyday foods.

Leaning on tradition

Time and again, I’ve tapped into what I had learned or already knew about traditional Indian cures, particularly after I had a hysterectomy to correct chronic anemia.

During my recovery, I frequently sought turmeric milk to hasten healing, and began to love the easy and effortless care each cup offered, including offering time for introspection and quiet meditation.

It also triggered research for my book “Seven Pots of Tea: An Ayurvedic approach to sips & nosh.”

The book was partly an effort to untangle the complex socio-cultural history of chai as the ‘national drink’ of India, and partly to revive, anchor, and reclaim traditional Ayurvedic knowledge around healing drinks that pre-dated chai, including turmeric milk.

After I published my first cookbook, I recognized the extent of misinterpretations and appropriation.

Not celebrating our cultural roots or ignoring regional nuances as valid expressions is a part of the legacy of colonization.

Colonization creates a belief system that perpetuates exploitation by erasing context and silencing the voices that nurtured culture for centuries—including traditional medicinal practices.

My grandparents were freedom fighters who fought hard to secure their rights and identities. Dissolving those identities with barista-style, frothy turmeric lattes laced with a kitchen sink worth of ingredients feels cruel, insensitive, and blind.

It’s a subtler version of the practices that nearly destroyed my birth country in the past.

It would feel uncomfortable to serve Mardi Gras King Cake—a celebratory cake with a figurine representing the Christ child hidden inside—at a birthday party or a wedding simply because it’s a cake.

Similarly, the rise of a contextually amorphous turmeric milk as a culinary trend feels like predatory capitalism. This is a colonial practice that erases the identities of the people who treasure turmeric milk as part of their traditional heritage.

My grandparents were freedom fighters who fought hard to secure their rights and identities. Dissolving those identities with barista-style, frothy turmeric lattes laced with a kitchen sink worth of ingredients feels cruel, insensitive, and blind.

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The essence of Ayurveda lies in tailoring preventive care to individual needs.

It takes into consideration the effect of individual ingredients on a persons’ specific constitution (dosha), the unique characteristics of their ailment, and the season or climate in which the treatment is administered.

Taking these nuances into account helps to make the consumption of turmeric milk more authentic.

Adding flavor

Every kitchen across India has a different version of turmeric milk that builds on a fundamental trifecta of ingredients: dairy, turmeric, and something to flavor it.

Options include:

A spoonful of sugar (and turmeric)

The most basic Ayurvedic preparation is a spoonful of a warm turmeric and jaggery mixture for throat ailments and general immunity. Sweeteners like jaggery and honey are preferred because they’re considered more beneficial than sugar, but table sugar works too.

Fresh turmeric root crushed with a bit of jaggery is popular as well, and turmeric and pepper are an especially beneficial combination.

These options are great for folks looking for a dairy-free alternative, but may be too strong a taste for some.

Classical turmeric milk

The next best way to intake turmeric is cooking the turmeric powder in cow’s milk in a technique called ‘Ksheerapaka’.

According to 2019 research, boiling turmeric preserves more antioxidants than roasting it.

This retains the benefits of turmeric while adding nutrients to an ailing body. Boiling the milk also breaks down proteins and makes it easier to digest, according to 2017 research.

Comparably, Siddha medicine prescribes cooking the turmeric in cow’s milk with a pinch of black pepper or even long pepper. The combination of black pepper and turmeric is also popular in modern medicine.

Milk alternatives

Other milks like goat, sheep, or camel milk are seldom recommended in Ayurveda.

Non-dairy milks like oat and nut milks are traditionally not considered to have the same Ayurvedic benefits as cow’s milk.

Instead, a simple tisane prepared by boiling water with a dash of powdered turmeric and a pinch of black pepper makes a great dairy-free option.

Adding spices to turmeric milk is a popular practice in many homes in India.

These include:

While they all bring a unique flavor, they also bring their own Ayurvedic qualities to the preparation. This impacts the dosha of the drinker and thus the health outcomes.

For instance, a saffron-heavy preparation isn’t best in summer, but may be appropriate during the winter months.

Similarly, studies like this one from 2019 and this one from 2020, have shown that the antioxidant capacity of spices like saffron and turmeric change based on how they’re cooked.

Some modern versions of turmeric milk also include less traditional herbs like:

While these herbs are included for their Ayurvedic properties, they may work differently for different people and should be used under the supervision of a qualified herbalist or Ayurvedic doctor.

If you want to try a pre-mixed version of spiced turmeric milk, my favorite options are below.

  • Spicewalla’s simple version of turmeric or “golden” milk has a warming blend of ginger, nutmeg, and roasted coriander.
  • Paavani Ayurveda offers a turmeric milk with a medicinal touch, adding Ashwaghanda and Shatavari to their blend.
  • Numi’s blend contains cinnamon, ginger, and cardamom with a touch of black pepper to activate the benefits of turmeric.
  • Banyan Botanicals has a slightly sweet, minty version made with dates and menthol.
  • Rishi Tea offers a loose “leaf” herbal blend containing turmeric, ginger, licorice, and citrus.

In many ways, turmeric milk’s resurgence is a sign that Western culture is paying more attention to the wisdom of Indian traditions that it once scorned and suppressed.

Enjoying turmeric milk’s soothing and healing benefits is a way to honor Indian culture if it’s done with an understanding of the history, cultural context, and deep personal meaning turmeric milk has to so many natives of India—just like me.

Nandita Godbole is an Atlanta-based, Indian-origin food writer and author of several cookbooks, including her latest, “Seven Pots of Tea: An Ayurvedic Approach to Sips & Nosh.” Find her books at venues where fine cookbooks are showcased, and follow her at @currycravings on any social media platform of your choice.