Archive for the ‘All about spices’ Category

Variety and the Spices of life

Spices are the best protective foods that Nature has given us.  In a broad sense, the word ‘spices’ encompasses a wide spectrum of herbs, roots, dried seeds, buds, tubers, rhizomes, barks and all sorts of other plant products.

Since ancient times, spices have been valued for their healing properties, and are of immense preservative value. Traders have braved the oceans to buy spices from the exotic lands of the East. Queen Isabella of Spain sent Christopher Columbus to find a newer, safer sea route to India to facilitate the trade of spices, among other goods.

Spices have great antioxidant properties, and are rich in vitamins and minerals.  They help to cleanse the blood, build tissues, prevent disease and aid in digestion.  The valuable micronutrients that spices have in them are also easily assimilated in the body.

Spices like garlic, onion, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, thyme and basil can kill bacteria.  Scientists claim that over 75% bacteria in food are killed by spices.  When a Kansas State University microbiologist cooked a pound of hamburger with 1/4 teaspoon of garlic powder, he found that it had 90% fewer pathogens that meat cooked without spices.

Kids with food allergies and sensitivities could react to artificial preservatives and flavor enhancers.  What can be better that using nature’s flavorful preservatives, which are beneficial in so many ways.  Food thus enriched hardly needs the high sodium and high fat condiments as accompaniments.  Just cook the healthy way and Spice it Up!

Watch for my write ups on different spices which are commonly used.

Read Full Post »

Pepper—has been in use for more than 30 centuries.  It is not merely an important flavoring agent, but is also a great preservative of food.  Romans thought that pepper was worth its weight in silver.  Turks blockaded the pepper routes used by Venetians and Genoese….which is why Isabella sent Columbus on his mission.

Pepper stimulates the flow of saliva and gastric juices and helps in the digestion of starch.  It has significant amounts of calcium and iron, plus micro nutrients like phosphorus, magnesium, copper and manganese.  It is a good source of Vitamin A.  Like most spices, it should be used moderately.

Turmeric—is a rhizome and belongs to the same family as ginger  The active principals identified in turmeric are curcumins, a group of substances which are powerful anti oxidants with cancer fighting properties. Turmeric is highly anti inflammatory– reduces swellings, is anti bacterial, and is also a good coagulent…like pepper it stops bleeding from cuts and wounds.

Turmeric is an important ingredient in all Indian food, as are most spices.  A quarter to half teaspoon is all you need for a dish serving four.  Not only is the color very concentrated (be careful of staining clothes and kitchen counters), so are the nutrients.  It is rich in iron and contains manganese which helps in the absorption of iron. Zinc and other trace minerals are also present in turmeric.

Cinnamon—is an immensely beneficial spice.  Ancient Egyptians used cinnamon paste, among other things, to preserve mummies, mainly because cinnmic acid is anti bacterial.  Cinnamon increases insulin sensitivity and facilitates the control of blood sugar levels.  Its active ingredients increase the ability of our body cells to metabolise sugar as much as 20 times.  USDA researchers found that people with Type 2 diabestes, who consumed about 1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon a daysignificantly reduced not only their blood sugar, but also reduced their triglyceride and LDL numbers. Some doctors recommend 1/2 a teaspoonful a day.

Cinnamon reduces the glycemic index of sugar, so what can be better than the traditional combination of cinnamon and sugar to sprinkle on gluten free toasts and pancakes?

Cloves—are great digestive aids, and are excellent for reducing flatulence.  Clove oil has pain relieving properties and is used, in some traditions to soothe a toothache.  Cloves contain phosphorus, magnesium, manganese and zinc.  A pinch of powdered cloves added to a bowl of soup or to a meat/poultry entrée gives that exotic touch.  And for that special flavor, try a  sprinkling of clove powder on pumpkin and apple desserts.

Cardamom seeds—are valued for their flavor and for a range of medicinal properties.  Along with cloves, cardamom is a natural remedy for nausea and helps digestion. It is a great source of the amino acid choline and of vital micronutrients such as phosphorus, magnesium and manganese.  Try a quarter teaspoon mixed into puddings and desserts for a special aroma.  One can also add a lesser quantity of sugar because of the inherent sweetness of cardamom.

Coriander seeds—are very rich in calcium, phosphorus and beta carotene.  They also contain folic acid, magnesium and zinc.  Coriander seeds give us an important amino acid which, according to some researchers, improves brain function. For a little off beat flavor, try a pinch of ground coriander seed with white sauces and gravies, and a little more in tomato bases sauces.  Ground coriander also blends well with vegetable, meat and poultry dishes.

Cumin seeds—are very aromatic and greatly embellish taste.  They are rich in anti oxidants and possibly anti carcinogenic.  They also contain calcium, phosphorus, iron and zinc, as well as Vitamin A. Cumin is an excellent remedy for flatulence and stimulates the appetite.  It also has some diuretic and carminative effect.

Lightly roasted cumin seeds have an enhanced aroma.  Roasting of all spices should be on low heat till they are hot to the touch, and crispy enough to powder.  This method helps to prevent the loss of volatile compounds.

Cumin, actually a native of Egypt, is now grown throughout Western Asia, parts of South Asia and Southern Europe.

It is an important spice in Indian, African and Mexican cuisines.  Beans /legumes of all kinds are more easily digestible with the addition of 1/2 to one teaspoonful of ground cumin seed.


Nutmeg—is an excellent flavoring for both sweet and savory dishes.  It contains calcium, phosphorus and magnesium.  An excess of nutmeg can lead to drowsiness and constipation—a small quantity suffices and works wonders with enhancing taste.

Our grandmas had so much good sense in adding nutmeg to spinach dishes, not merely to add that exotic flavor, but also to balance the laxative quality of spinach with the opposite quality in nutmeg! 

Cayenne Pepper—When jalapenos are ripened and dried, they are ground to produce a red powder, popularly called red chili powder.  Its pungent flavor comes from its main ingredient, capsicin.

Cayenne pepper is rich in Vitamins C and K, and has significantly higher levels of calcium and phosphorus than green jalapenos.  It also contains micro nutrients such as copper, manganese, zinc and iron.

Nature has made this spice pungent, adding to the “hot” fiery flavor in food, so it must be used in small quantities, as an excess of capsicin can lead to acidity, stomach ulcers and related problems.

Paprika—is made from dried and ground fruits of certain varieties of pepper, mainly the larger and sweeter variety of red bell pepper.  It is rich in Vitamin A and antioxidants such as lutein, zeaxanthin and betacarotene, all of which promote eye health. It also contains significant amounts of Vitamin B6, which also keeps eyes healthy and prevents cellular damage.It is also anti inflammatory.

Paprika adds a rich red color to food, without adding too much of a pungent, fiery flavor. Instead of using any artificial red color which is commonly added to Indian tandoor dishes, it is much healthier and safer to use paprika.

Hungarian paprika is considered most flavorful and of the finest quality.

Basil—The Greeks called basil the ‘kingly herb’, while the French considered it ‘royale’. The Indian basil is regarded as the sacred herb, because of its phenomenal medicinal, nutritive and anti bacterial properties.

Studies show that basil can inhibit growth of certain bacteria that have become resistant to commonly used anti biotic drugs.  It contains antioxidants and is a natural food preservative.  It makes great sense to include basil and thyme in foods, especially uncooked foods like salads, so not only is food more flavorful, but fresh produce remains safe to eat for longer periods of time.

Basil is a wonderful source of beta carotene, which is a powerful antioxidant that protects cells and blood vessels.  Studies show that the beta carotene in basil helps to lessen the progression of asthma.

It is a good source of magnesium, iron, calcium, potassium, Vitamins C and K.


Thyme—is a medicinal herb and an excellent natural preservative.  In ancient times it was often used in embalming. It has a distinctive flavor which enriches soups, stews and meats, and like basil, retains flavor on drying.  It releases flavor slowly and can be added early in the cooking process.  It is antiseptic…good in mouthwashes, anti bacterial and anti inflammatory.


Oregano—The name is derived from the Greek words ‘oro’ for mountain, and ‘ganos’ for splendour.  The plant is lovely and the mountains where it grew were considered all the more beautiful for its presence.

Researchers claim that the oil in oregano leaves is one of the finest natural medicines.  Studies show that it is a natural pain killer, has anti inflammatory qualities reduces indigestion, flatulence, coughs and bronchial problems.


Bayleaf—or laurel was famed in ancient Greece and Rome.  Emperors and heroes wore wreaths of laurel leaves as symbols of their honor and achievements.  The Greeks believed that bayleaf was a cure for everything from indigestion to nightmares.  It has antioxidant and anti inflammatory properties and is also considered anti bacterial and anti fungal.  Studies show that it helps the body to process insulin more efficiently.  It adds a rich flavor to Indian curries, soups, sauces, stews, meat and poultry.  Basmati rice tastes awesome with just a single bayleaf tossed into it.

Dried bayleaf should be kept whole and olive green.  Brown ones have probably lost their flavor.  When kept away from light in airtight containers, bayleaf will retain its flavor for a couple of years.


Mint—has been in use for several centuries.  Its fragrance was synonymous with hospitality and wisdom.  Ancient Greeks and Romans rubbed their tables with mint before their guests arrived.

For cooking, the variety called ‘spearmint’ is the most preferred and popular.  Mint combines well with a number of foods, especially with meats like lamb, and can be used creatively as a garnish for all kinds of cooked foods as well as salads.

Mint is rich in antioxidants, Vitamins A and C.  It is carminative, anti spasmodic, helps digestion and reduces flatulence , throat and sinus infections.  When added to a summer drink, mint enhances the cooling quality.  Try it with lemon/lime juice, buttermilk, iced tea, water melon juice and in many more creative combinations. 

Mustard—is one of the oldest spices and is very widely used.  Most ancient cultures used it for seasoning food and also as a condiment or pickling spice, because of its preservative properties. Mustard oil is rich in alpha linoleic acid which is a source of Omega 3.  It has the lowest saturated fat content among edible oils and is healthy to use.

Mustard has great antioxidant and anti bacterial properties and is rich in micro nutrients In some traditions it is used for its healing properties—as a pain reliever for muscular pains, in liniments and poultices for insect bites.

The name mustard is derived from the Latin word ‘mustum’ which means ‘must’…this spice is definitely a ‘must’.  It adds piquancy to food flavors and is good in marinades, barbecue sauces and other condiments.  Powdered mustard acts as an emulsifier in salad dressings

American mustard is usually made from white mustard seeds blended with sugar, vinegar and colored with turmeric.

English mustard is also made with white mustard seeds but has a greater pungency.  It is sometimes mixed with wheat flour for bulk and has turmeric for color. Do watch out for wheat ingredients before using this mustard.

Dijon mustard is made from husked black mustard seeds blended with salt, and spices. It is important to check the manufacturer’s website whether wheat or gluten has been used in the wine fermentation process.

Ginger—has great digestive and anti inflammatory properties.  Adding ginger to beans and other legumes while cooking makes them easily digestible and less flatulent.  Ginger helps to clear coughs, colds, soothes nausea and crampis.  It is a mild natural alternative to histamines.

Ginger has strong anti oxidant properties, inhibiting oild from growing rancid in the body.  It also contains small quantities of iron and calcium along with micro nutrients like magnesium, manganese and phosphorus.

Garlic—is the most protective of all root vegetables.  It is a powerful immune system booster, helps lower cholesterol and inhibits growth of tumours.  It has strong antioxidant properties as it has the rare mineral, selenium.  A recent USDA report calls garlic a “functional food” with special nutritional benefits.

Garlic contains nutrients such as Vitamins A and C, and significant amounts of calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and zinc.  But its most important ingredient is allicin, a sulphur bearing compound which is an effective anti coagulant.

Food cooked with garlic is protected from pathogens for a good period of time and does not spoil as quickly as food cooked without.  It is important to also add other spices to food to preserve it naturally.

Cornell researchers tell us that people began using garlic and similar herbs centuries ago to kill bacteria and other food borne pathogens.

Reducing ‘Spicy’ food from our diet is not a good option. We can add less cayenne pepper/ jalapenos/ red and green chilies to our food, but adding spices is extremely important for health and general well being.

Spices add Variety, which is the ‘spice’ of life, so go ahead, Spice It Up!


Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: