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Spices: Using them & Health benefits Part I

In the last article we learnt about herbs & spices in general. In this feature you will learn about 11 spices that can be easily bought in supermarkets/organic stores. I will discuss their health benefits in terms of digestive system, the food, spice & herb combinations, impact on doshas as per Āyurveda (Vāta, Pitta & Kapha) and how to use them as antidotes to certain foods!

Before you go down the spice route, please remember these 3 words:

  1. Carminative: removes intestinal gas, bloating & pain

  2. Stimulant: increases internal heat and metabolic activity

  3. Tempering: a process in which whole spices are briefly sautéed/roasted in hot oil/ghee**so that they give out their flavours & aroma. It is usually done at the beginning of the cooking process but sometimes can also be done at the end for final flavouring!

Let us begin our spice journey!

1. Asafoetida

Asafoetida is an oleo-gum-resin obtained from the rhizome & root of plant Ferula asafoetida. It is widely used in Indian food and in Ayurveda (Indian traditional system of medicine). It is pungent in taste. It is stimulant, carminative and helps in digesting heavy foods such as pulses (beans, legumes, lentils) and meat. I highly recommend using it while cooking these foods. It has a strong taste & flavour and hence only a pinch of it is used in recipes. Although the pungent smell can put you off, once it is sautéed in oil the smell dissipates leaving room for its subtle flavour to show off in the dish.

It mostly comes in powdered form and is often mixed with wheat flour/fenugreek. If you can get the pure form, that is the best! It can be found in Indian stores, online or in certain organic food stores. It should be briefly sautéed in oil or simmered in the cooking liquid to be activated.

Herbs & spice pairing: can be paired with almost all spices in savoury dishes!

  • Can be used in Tempering

The best spice for Vāta, but good for all three doshas when used in cooking.

2. Black Pepper

Black Pepper is pungent and strongly heating. It is carminative and one of the best stimulants for the digestive system as it increases the digestive power. Especially useful when eating heavy dairy products like cheese and raw foods.

It is important to keep in mind that the flavour of black pepper is strongly influenced by the region of production (climate, varieties), the method of preparation and the desired quality. So try peppers from different countries and choose the one that best fits your taste!

Herbs & spice pairing: can be paired with almost all spices & herbs if used in the right amount!

  • Can be used in Tempering

Will increase Pitta especially if combined with other heating spices. Best for Kapha.

3. Cardamom

Two varieties, both used in culinary and traditional medicine practices.

Green Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) – marketed as one of the most expensive and valued spices.

Black Cardamom (Amomum subulatum) – pods are larger than green cardamom pods. It is pungent & bitter in taste, has a strong aroma and a smoky flavour.

In this article I am using Cardamom for Green cardamom!

Cardamom is pungent & sweet in taste. It is a stimulant, digestive, carminative and it aids in the digestion of dairy products like milk and ice cream. It is good against gas, constipation, nausea and vomiting. It is used for antidoting coffee.

Highly aromatic, Cardamom (either whole or in ground form) is widely used as a flavouring agent in savoury and sweet dishes. Even a little bit of it can empower an entire dish & other spices. Perfect in curries, stew, beverages and in desserts.

When you buy green Cardamom make sure that the pod is lively green and not yellowish dull green. The seeds inside the pod should be black and not greyish. A green pod with black seeds inside is a mark of high quality.

Herbs & spice pairing: cinnamon, coriander, cloves, bay leaf, cumin, ginger, rosemary, thyme

  • Can be used in Tempering

It will increase Pitta only when consumed in excess.

4. Cinnamon

Cinnamon is pungent to taste, heating and extremely aromatic. It is stimulant and carminative. When combined with cardamom and bay leaf, it leads to one of the most aromatic combinations! Together these 3 are very good for treating colds & flu.

Cinnamon can be used in savoury & sweet dishes. Best in stews, curries, rice dishes with vegetables and/or meat. It is also used to make herbal tea.

Herbs & spice pairing: cloves, coriander, cumin, ginger, nutmeg, turmeric

  • Can be used in Tempering

Will increase Pitta when used in excess, but in small quantities is a good digestive aid when Pitta is balanced.

5. Cloves

Cloves are pungent & bitter. They are stimulant, carminative, decongestant and can be used against nausea, and headaches.

Since they are strongly heating in nature, it is best to use in small quantities, for example, 1-2 cloves per person in a recipe! Coarsely ground cloves if you plan to sauté it in oil so that all its essence, aroma & flavours can be extracted. For adding a mild flavour just push a whole clove into an item being cooked or put it in a cheesecloth and remove before serving. Can be used to add flavours to stews, broths, curries, sweets etc.

Herbs & spice pairing: cinnamon, coriander, cumin, fennel, ginger, nutmeg

  • Can be used in Tempering

Increases Pitta easily

6. Coriander Seeds

Astringent, bitter & pungent in taste. It is carminative, stimulant and diuretic. It is mainly used to counteract the effect of hot and spicy foods. As a stimulant it is highly effective in balancing the enzyme function during the digestion process. Coriander seeds can overpower the flavour of a dish if used in large quantities.

Buy whole seeds and grind them as needed. When using powder add towards the end of the cooking process.

Herbs & spice pairing: cinnamon, cloves, cumin, garlic, ginger, fennel, nutmeg

  • Can be used in Tempering

A good spice for Pitta since not a strongly heating spice.

* you can read about Āyurveda and doshas here

** Ghee is clarified butter highly revered for its health benefits. It is used in cooking, in religious ceremonies and in Āyurveda therapeutically for thousands of years.

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