The Healing Grocery
By Swaha Devi
Hot spiced cider simmering on the stove…cinnamon and ginger treats emerging from the oven…These and other smells are a quintessential part of the holiday season’s festivities. The spices responsible for sending these satisfying aromas wafting through the house not only stimulate our appetites, but also stimulate the body and spirit in many other ways. In fact, they are perfect for winter: aiding circulation, lifting winter blues, alleviating symptoms of colds and flu and helping digest holiday fare.
Spices add distinctiveness and color to a dish—and their history is equally colorful. Some date back thousands of years to ancient Egypt, while others are mentioned in the Bible. Spices were traded along the famous spice routes between Asia and Europe, and some were considered as precious as gems. Even a spice as commonplace today as black pepper was so valuable in medieval Europe that it sometimes served as currency for paying the tax collector or providing part of a dowry.
Other spices come from Africa, the Pacific Islands and other exotic locations where they are essential parts of the culinary delights of their respective regions. Some spices, like saffron, were used to dye cloth. Others, strong in taste, were effective for delaying food spoilage—or masking it. But all of them have a common heritage: a history in the healing arts.
You will find spices as ingredients in many healing teas available in health food stores, or you can make your own, fresh on the stove. Adding spices to almost any dish has great benefits. The spices of India, for example, add both deep and high notes to the vast range of curries and chutneys that are famous in Indian cuisine, and each spice also has a noted place in Ayurvedic medicine—a system of healing that is both ancient and contemporary. The same is true of the role of spices in other cultures.
Here is a sampling.
A taste of spice
Cinnamon is the perfect remedy for winter: Its stimulating effect invigorates the nervous system and aids poor circulation, while its warming properties make it useful for breaking up cold and flu season symptoms associated with winter weather, such as phlegm. Because cinnamon helps the body use insulin more efficiently, it also works as an anti-diabetic substance.
Chinese herbalists used cinnamon as far back as 2700 BC, and they still use it today for fever and diarrhea as well as menstrual problems. In fact, cinnamon is a common ingredient in many Chinese herbal formulations. Other ancient medical traditions from Greek and Roman to Hebrew and Ayur- vedic used it to treat indigestion and nausea. Cinnamon is even mentioned in the Bible as part of a holy ointment, and ancient Egyptians used cinnamon in their embalming mixtures. In those days, oil of cinnamon, a powerful antiseptic, was more valuable than gold. Brought by the Crusaders to Europe, it had also been used as a love potion.
While most people are familiar with using cinnamon sticks for flavoring hot drinks, or powdered cinnamon for cereal, coffee and baked goods, cinnamon is not exclusively for sweet dishes. It is also found in savory dishes, notably as an ingredient in curries.
Clove is native to Indonesia and is grown in the West Indies, Brazil, Sri Lanka, India and Zanzibar. In the West, it is familiar as the spice that perks up everything from apple pie to the traditional Christmas ham. The documented healing qualities of this spice are numerous, including anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antihistamine properties. It is used to relieve nausea, vomiting, flatulence, diarrhea and hypothermia.
Clove is a rich source of eugenol—an antioxidant that protects against cardiovascular disease by inhibiting platelet aggregation. Clove has even been shown to stimulate production of cancer-fighting enzymes. The spice is used in Chinese medicine for intestinal parasites and fungal infections such as athlete’s foot, and in Western herbal medicine for fighting bacteria and candida infections.
Clove oil is known primarily as an oral anesthetic. In the Han Dynasty (3rd century AD) of China, anyone the emperor addressed had to hold cloves in their mouth to mask bad breath. In the Middle Ages in Europe, the oil was used as an antiseptic. Today, it is an ingredient in insect repellent and also has uses in veterinary medicine.
Nutmeg is popular during the holidays in eggnog and baked goods. (Mace, a related spice used in baking and chocolate, comes from the outer membrane of the nutmeg seed.) According to ancient Indian medicine, nutmeg is used to relieve headache, fever and bad breath, while in Arabian texts the spice is indicated for stomach ailments and as an aphrodisiac. In addition to traditional baking uses, try nutmeg in vegetable dishes or sprinkled onto fish or chicken for a unique sparkle. But use it sparingly! It is quite strong. For the most flavor, buy fresh, whole nutmeg and use a tiny spice grater.
Saffron is a delicate spice, taken from the yellow stigma of the crocus flower. The spice blends well with garlic, thyme, tomatoes, ginger or lemon, and is the key ingredient in the French seafood stew bouillabaisse and the Spanish dish paella. But it is also found in baked goods and dishes that use nuts, grains or white foods such as white beans, jicama, yogurt or even vanilla ice cream. In India, it is a mark of honor to put saffron in a guest’s dish.
In Ayurvedic medicine, saffron is used as an anti-inflammatory to heal arthritis. It also tones the organs, strengthening the heart and helping to resolve liver disease, kidney infection and menstrual problems. Added to a glass of milk, saffron is taken as a health tonic, which over time helps build resistance to asthma and colds. Known as an aphrodisiac, it has been used to treat impotence and infertility, and is found in the medicines of the Middle East, China and Tibet. Saffron may also have anticancer properties.
Cayenne pepper is part of both the cuisine and the folk medicine of most hot climates. Cayenne’s numerous healing benefits are related to its stimulating effects. This spice helps reverse congestion and blockages in the respiratory and digestive systems, thus aiding in the elimination of toxins and mucus. Cayenne also promotes circulatory health and dispels fatigue and depression. Prepare it as a tea to combat colds or headaches; or as a poultice for pain or inflammations such as boils or toothaches. [For more details on cayenne and other peppers, see “A Passion for Peppers,” Issue 42/July 2001.]
Black pepper is a familiar seasoning. A member of a different family than other peppers, black pepper nevertheless shares the stimulating qualities of its namesakes. In India, home of Ayurvedic medicine, black pepper is used for improving metabolism and circulation and for treating colds. This popular spice has been used to ward off lethargy. Peppercorns also aid digestion by stimulating digestive juices.
For optimum taste, crack fresh peppercorns coarsely (you can use the back of a knife) for use on grilled foods; put whole peppercorns in soup; or use a pepper grinder to sprinkle the spice onto salads or vegetables.
Ginger is essential to many forms of Asian cuisine and an important part of Chinese and Indian medicine. In Ayurvedic medicine, ginger is called the universal remedy. Pickled, it is a good treatment for getting rid of parasites, especially from raw fish (a good reason why pickled ginger is traditionally served with sushi).
Ginger is part of most Chinese remedies (but is contraindicated for kidney disease). It reduces the total volume of acid in the stomach, which helps relieve queasiness, calm nausea, including nausea from chemotherapy, and prevent motion sickness. This wonderful root also relieves headaches, including migraines, as well as arthritis and joint stiffness. It stimulates circulation and guards against clots. It is also known to invigorate the reproductive system. As a winter spice, it assists expectoration, acts as a decongestant to clear the sinuses and has antiseptic properties that ward off colds or flu, making ginger a perfect winter tea.
Cardamom is related to ginger and the seed is used as an energy tonic. In Ayurvedic medicine, cardamom is considered warming and inspiring—and it is used for lifting the spirits. It also dispels colds, lifts depression, restores vitality and induces a meditative state of mind. This fragrant spice is used in warm drinks such as hot punches and teas, including the Indian spiced tea known as chai. Cardamom combines well with milk because it helps dispel the mucus-forming properties of milk. Try it as a mood-lifting tea.
Coriander is one of the oldest documented spices. (In the Bible, manna is described as “white like coriander seed.”) The leaf of the plant is the popular herb cilantro. But coriander seed has a very different taste and fragrance: tangy and somewhat like citrus. Coriander is found in the cuisines of the Mediterranean, Africa, South America and India—for both sweet and savory dishes. It is best known for its use in Indian curries. Less known is the fact that coriander has been used to improve the taste of gin and cigarettes.
Turmeric is a hardworking, protective spice. It is antioxidant, anti-
inflammatory, anti-microbial, antifungal and antiviral. It helps reduce the pain of gout and rheumatoid arthritis, and is used topically to speed healing of injuries and wounds. Turmeric can also alleviate intestinal gas, stimulate circulation, hinder the buildup of cholesterol, protect liver cells and increase bile production.
Turmeric has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for 3,000 years and was also used by the Persians, the Chinese and the U.S. military. Among its various uses were treatments for leprosy, jaundice, eczema and debility from illness. Research indicates that turmeric aids in the digestion of fat and protein, and reduces the risk of stroke in high-risk populations (those who have heart disease or have had a stroke). Turmeric also boosts insulin activity, which is helpful to diabetics. You can mix turmeric with honey, as they do in India, as a remedy for colds, or as they do in Thailand, for stomach discomfort.
Turmeric adds a warm note and bright yellow color to dishes featuring rice, lentils, fish or chicken. It is a versatile spice, blending with sweet spices, hot peppers and sharp herbs and often a part of garam masala blends (familiarly known as curry). You can use turmeric whole, slice the root into soups and stews, or pour it ground into other dishes.
Curcumin, an extract of turmeric, is the pigment that gives curry its yellow color. Pigments are often rich sources of healing chemicals, and there is evidence that this active chemical may inhibit replication of HIV and even fight tumors. Recent animal studies show that curcumin appears to inhibit colon, skin and breast tumors in animals. Researchers at the oncology department of England’s Leicester University noted that out of 500 patients diagnosed with colon cancer, only two were Asian, despite one-fifth of the city’s population being Asian. They believe that the secret of the Asian community’s ability to resist cancer lies in curcumin, found in their cooking. Professor Will Steward and his team are testing curcumin capsules on colon cancer sufferers to see what effect the spice has on the system. But they hope that eventually the capsules will be given to healthy people to test their preventive abilities. Research in the U.S., including Emory University, has already suggested that curcumin could block or shrink tumors, possibly by inhibiting angiogenesis (the development of a supply of blood vessels to the tumor).
Cumin, a related spice, has been used as a digestive aid. It has also been found to have interferon-like activity. Cumin seed has a slightly bitter but warm taste. In addition to its use in curries, it has become an important ingredient in Mexican dishes.
Caraway seed—originally from Asia, and a cumin look-alike—is used primarily in European kitchens, as an ingredient in rye bread, sauerkraut and cabbage soup. Like other spices, it serves as a digestive aid, while lending its distinctive taste to food.
So spice up your life with a curry, a dessert, a tasty hot beverage or any number of dishes that bring variety to the table. After all, as the old saying goes:
Variety is the spice of life.