Spice It Up!
You won’t find them in the average American pantry, but these spices add a dose of medicinal flavor to any dish.
Centuries ago, men set sail on unknown seas in search of exotic medicinal spices they valued as much as gold—making a killing in the process. The ancient empires they served hungered for the wealth and power that spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, and peppers guaranteed, and the wars they fought were a small price to pay for the riches these spices yielded. Yet despite their auspicious beginnings, today’s spices are affordable and abundant, and their ancient uses for healing and nutrition have seen a resurgence in popularity.
Spices were long-revered status symbols highly sought after for their curative healing powers. Kings were embalmed in aromatic ones like cinnamon and myrrh, and Roman Emperor Nero, after murdering his wife, burned a year’s worth of his city’s valuable cinnamon supply in absolution.
Spice-based tinctures and salves were also precious and expensive remedies for wounds, ailments, and disease. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates recognized the merits of plant-based medicine and classified hundreds of spices and herbs along with their corresponding medicinal uses. Some of those remedies include the pain-reducing salicin found in the bark of a willow tree, which forms the basis of current medicines like aspirin.
Like a modern day Hippocrates, Vedic chef Sonia Tigero is an Ayurveda practitioner and consultant who specializes in Indian holistic traditions, which emphasize a mind, body, and spirit connection for preventative and curative care. Chef Tigero says spices and herbs can be used to create organic stability and health. “Spices are packed with healing power. Not only do they enhance digestion, but they also remove accumulated ama, toxins created by undigested food.” She adds, “Turmeric, cumin, coriander, fennel, hing, black pepper, dried powdered ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cayenne are Ayurvedic spices that enhance digestion and metabolism, cleanse ama from the body, and prevent digestive disorders such as gas and bloating.”
Tigero suggests using spices liberally to add that extra zest to bland foods. “As an Ayurvedic chef, the first thing you learn is how to use spices and how to prepare a Churna, a mixture of spices and herbs. These spices kindle agni, digestive fir, similar to metabolism, which is imperative for proper digestion. Food should never be bland because bland food is hard to digest.”
When incorporating spices into a meal, she recommends adding fresh spices near the end of cooking or just before serving because prolonged heat can cause loss of flavor and aroma. Conversely, the best way to reap the benefits of dried spices is by adding them early in the cooking process. Freshly ground spices, such as black pepper, cardamom, and cinnamon, provide more flavor and are more potent than buying ground spices. And she says to store dried spices away from heat and moisture. As a rule of thumb, herbs and ground spices will last a year when stored in closed, dark containers.
Although spices can be ingested via teas and capsules or used as essential oils and salves, most naturopaths and physicians recommend buying them in small quantities and consuming them fresh or ground, when their healing properties are most intact and fresh.
Dr. Monali Gidwani, MD, a board-certified family and integrative medical practitioner, says medical care that considers the mind-body connection is a, “central pillar to good health.” Holistic modalities that include the big picture (how a patient lives and eats) are equally important in their overall care. She states certain spices and herbs, when used in moderation, can be powerful remedies for common ailments.
“Autoimmune diseases and inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and joint inflammation, for example, benefit from turmeric,” says Dr. Gidwani. “I tell my patients to drink turmeric tea. Turmeric doesn’t have a ton of flavor and it is easily digested.”
Naturopath Michelle Robson, author of The Everything Guide to Spices for Health, agrees. “As naturopaths, we are taught to use herbs and spices to complement traditional medical treatment,” Robson says. “An average person can improve their health by adding a variety of spices into their diet. Many spices offer nutritive, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant benefits. A carefully planned, individualized diet, including spices and herbs, can definitely have a positive impact on the body.”
Thankfully a pound of nutmeg no longer requires a payment of seven oxen, and a perilous journey to far off lands isn’t needed either to buy turmeric or saffron. But one thing is still true: The health benefits of spices remain just as powerful today as they were in the past—and equally flavorful.
THE SPICE RACK
Turmeric’s healing powers can be traced back to ancient Ayurveda when it was used as a detoxifying agent and natural astringent. It has a bright golden color, an earthy flavor, and is very aromatic. Turmeric is best consumed fresh or ground in tea, and is often paired with cayenne pepper, ginger, or cinnamon. Today, its anti-inflammatory benefits, largely derived from its active component, curcumin, are widely studied and commonly used to treat autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, and lupus.
Sumac is a plum-hued spice ground from Sumac bush berries. This colorful spice is a staple of Mediterranean cuisine, especially in southern Italy, Iran, and other parts of the Middle East. It is often used as a substitute for lemon due to its tart, fruity taste and smell. It is used as a tangy marinade for chicken and fish, or any other dish where lemon juice might be used. Sumac has long been used for its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties to reduce fevers and treat asthma, colds, and sore throats.
Known as “food of the gods” or “devil’s dung,” hing has always had a bit of a reputation to overcome. Inarguably, hing is one of the most pungent spices in Eastern and Middle-Eastern cuisine. Uncooked, it has a powerfully unpleasant sulfuric odor that is neutralized when blended into warm butter or oil. Its flavor is reminiscent of onions and garlic. Hing and turmeric are often paired together as base ingredients in curry, and it is also used as an onion substitute by Buddhist vegetarians. For centuries, hing has been used to treat and prevent indigestion and colic pain. It is also use to treat acne and eczema.
The earliest recorded mention of cinnamon, or Ceylon cinnamon, dates to the bible, where the spice was used in aromatic ointments and as an embalming ingredient. Known for its powerful aroma, cinnamon is derived from the inner bark of small evergreen trees native to Sri Lanka and coastal India. When harvested, the bark coils into smooth reddish-brown quills, or cinnamon sticks, which are sold as-is or as a finely ground powder. Cinnamon is known to be an anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, and immune-boosting spice that is often used to reduce blood-sugar levels.
This savory panacea is the Ayurvedic equivalent of chicken soup, only with a lot more flavor. Indian mothers make it for their children when they’re sick with the flu. Kitchari boosts the immune system, eases digestion, and keeps you energized. It’s the perfect dish if you’re on a cleanse, feeling under the weather, or just craving a light meal.
Rinse Mung dhal and rice separately. Soak the Mung dhal for a few hours, then drain. Put the ginger, coconut, cilantro, and half a cup of water into a food processor and blend until liquefied. Heat the Ghee on medium in a large saucepan and add the blended items, turmeric, and salt. Stir well and bring to a boil to release the flavor. Next, mix in the rice, Mung dhal, and 6 cups of water. Return to a boil, uncovered, for five minutes. Skim the foam, then cover with the lid slightly ajar. Turn down the heat to a simmer and cook for 25–30 minutes, until the dhal and rice are tender.
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