Spice it Right

For thousands of years Ayurveda has been singing praises of herbs and spices, calling them ‘wonder-foods’. Many cultures around the world swear by their spice-boxes, as this little wonder-box has proven itself as a reliable companion whether one’s to rustle up a family feast or a potion for the sick!

Herbs and Spices, apart from elevating an ordinary dish into a sublime feast for the senses, also come with a fair share of therapeutic properties that enhance health and well-being.

So here’s a little list of wonder foods and their wondrous properties –

Coriander (Dhania): The coriander seed is truly a cook’s best friend as it aids in the assimilation of other herbs and spices used during cooking. Coriander is also beneficial in digestive, respiratory and urinary disorders, as well as treating skin ailments.

Ginger (Adrak): An irreplacable spice in any kitchen, Ginger (dry or fresh) brings flavor and pungency to food and is used widely as a digestive. Known as ‘the universal medicine’ for its healing properties, Ginger provides an excellent remedy for respiratory conditions and this invigorating spice is also used in herbal tea to treat common cold and cough.

Cumin (Jeera): Widely used as a flavoring agent and condiment in curries and lentils, Cumin is known for its aromatic qualities. This spice is used as a stimulant for digestive disorders and even as an antiseptic. It also enhances the functioning of the liver and pancreas, enabling the body to cleanse accumulated toxins and absorb nutrients better.

Fenugreek (Methi): Fenugreek is highly valuable for its healing properties. It is helpful in treating digestive, respiratory, nervous, and menstrual disorders, as well as purifying the skin and facilitating weight loss. Drinking water with Fenugreek seeds soaked overnight helps in reducing blood sugar levels in the body.

Turmeric (Haldi): Referred to as the Indian Saffron, Turmeric is bitter, astringent and pungent in taste. It has been known for centuries for its many therapeutic qualities, including anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-septic properties. Widely regarded as an indispensable part of Indian cuisine, Turmeric enhances metabolism and helps the body to reduce undesirable fatty deposits when used in cooking.

Black Pepper: Pepper helps carry nutrition across the blood brain barrier and sauteeing fresh ground pepper in extra virgin olive oil or ghee is recommended for brain nourishment. Black pepper helps correct digestive disorders and its vital component called piperine strengthens immunity and the functioning of the heart and kidneys.

Cinnamon: Cinnamon improves blood glucose, triglycerides, LDL and total cholesterol, and enhances cognitive functions and memory. It prevents snoring. Cinnamon has a regulatory effect on blood sugar and has an amazing ability to stop medication-resistant yeast infections. Research has shown that cinnamon may reduce the proliferation of leukemia and lymphoma cancer cells.

Cardamom: Ancient Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Arab cultures were equally fond of this spice, which was considered to have aphrodisiac qualities and was used in love potions. Besides being a catalyst for romance, cardamom also has numerous other health benefits: Added to milk it neutralizes its mucus forming properties and detoxifies caffeine in coffee. It also clears sinuses. It stimulates the mind and heart and gives clarity and joy.

Clove is especially effective at helping the digestive fire, is mildly aphrodisiac and disinfects the lymphatics. It has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and may prevent toxicity from pollutants and digestive-tract cancers.

Saffron: Known as an aphrodisiac spice saffron strengthens the whole body, has a particularly powerful effect on the reproductive organs and has been used to enhance fertility. It is a good spice for menopause and menstrual problems, since it is a revitalizer of blood, circulation and the female reproductive system, as well as the metabolism in general. It helps with asthmatic and bronchial disorders, reduces inflammation treats acne and skin conditions, and strengthens the heart.

Nutmeg: Increases absorption especially in the small intestine, and is recommended for urinary incontinence. It is one of the best spices to calm the mind. For sound sleep try 1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg with 1/2 cup of warm milk. Since nutmeg has hallucinogenic properties only small quantities should be used.

Fennel: Fennel is a cooling spice. According to Ayurveda, fennel is extremely good for the digestion. Fennel removes mucus and fat from the intestinal tract, and is a natural appetite suppressant. It is one of the best herbs for digestion, relieving gas and indigestion or digestive weakness in the elderly or children. It strengthens agni without aggravating pitta. Fennel is calming for the nerves and provides mental alertness.

Basil, has a purifying, holistic and uplifting influence (called “sattvic” in Vedic terms) on the mind. It also has an influence on immunity and cleansing of the chest area. If a person has a cough and cold the fresh leaves may be steeped in hot water and drunk as a tea throughout the day.

Cilantro: It is a potent heavy metal detoxifier. Cooling coriander leaves contain a natural antihistamine, vitamin C and bio-flavonoids which reduce allergic reactions such as hay fever. The high bioflavonoid content can also help hemorrhoids, varicose veins and spider veins.

Fresh Curry Leaves: Improve functioning of the stomach and small intestine. They are directly added to food or in the form of juice added to buttermilk and consumed at the end of lunch/dinner. Eating 10 fresh fully grown curry leaves every morning for three months is said to prevent diabetes. They may also cure diabetes due to obesity, as the leaves have weight reducing properties.

Though in the last decade or so, with the spread of Ayurveda and other nature-aligned medicinal sciences, the benefits of Spices trevelled across cultures, the right usage has often got left behind in the process, which makes the knowledge of spices only half as beneficial. What many of us might not know is that spices need help from heat to bring out their best qualities. Ideally they should be sautéed in oil or dry-fried before use, as the fat-soluble components of spices are only released when they are sautéed in oil or ghee. This is why it is not advisable to buy turmeric or other spices as a supplement in capsules as it would be too hard on the liver. Since spices act synergistically and their water and fat soluble components are released when cooked in water or oil, the best way to make use of their healing properties is to add them to food.

But don’t get bogged down by the encyclopedic accounts of their medicinal properties floating on the world wide web or by the enormous variety that greets you at the food store. Start with a few and have some fun! See what flavors agree with your taste buds and after a few culinary hits and flops you will have slowly built your own spice-box!

– by Aditi Bhatia

References Jiva, Culinary HabanaBeyond Acupuncture, Times of India