Spices have been important part of seasoning in foods throughout the world. Spices, herbs and essential oils have been the foundation for flavouring that defines the food of the wide range of cultures and their cuisines throughout the world. The smell of these spices can be “exotic” or “foreign” or “stinky”. In today’s fast-growing world, we have more opportunities to experience cuisines that are new and different. Sometimes flavours must be experienced several times to appreciate them and then we enjoy the new seasonings and find them delicious. This is often the case of spices from India. Spices and aromatics are the very heart of Indian cooking.
As many cultures through the world, Indian have used herbs and spices in their health practices too. The Indian form of medicine using herbals including spices is “Ayurvedic Medicine”. Indians describe this as a system of “science of life” which looks at holistic treatment. These herbs and spices are seen to not only lend flavours to bland meals, but also “have a profound impact on human health because they affect many of the body’s metabolic processes”. (Feast of India, Rani)
Indian food is characterised by the extensive use of numerous “key” spices that are essential in providing authentic tastes and deliciously unique flavours. For my cooking I sometimes dry roast spices to release the essential oils before being grounded or sometimes I “bloom” them which means cook spices in some oil or ghee (Indian clarified butter). This brings out the flavour of the spices and then enhance anything you add to them. Conveniently, most spices are now easily available in supermarkets and online in both ground form and whole form.
I have talked about Turmeric in one of my blogs – “Turmeric- My Magic Ingredient”.
The other regular key ingredients I use in my cooking are as follows;
Asafoetida – This wonderful ingredient helps in digestion. It is also used in medicines because of its antibiotic properties. I remember when I was a little girl and whenever I had any tummy aches, my mum used to put Asafoetida mixed with some warm water, around the belly. She used to give ¼ of asafoetida with carom seed and warm water. I hated the taste but few minutes later I used to feel better. I just love homemade medicines.
I use cloves in my curries because they have a warming, spicy and sweet taste. Most of us have experienced using cloves or clove oil when suffering with toothache. According to research cloves are actually good sources of vitamin C, Calcium and Omega 3 fatty acids. My mother-in- law always says that it helps digestive and stomach disorders but for me it’s the aroma cloves bring to my dishes.
Every household in India use cumin seeds. It’s the aroma and taste and medicinal properties which attracts me. I remember when suffering with cold my mum used to make this special tea and one of the key ingredients always was Cumin. Research say that Cumin not only relieve from digestive problems, but its antiseptic properties can help fight flu by boosting the immune system. I also remember drinking lots of warm cumin water when I was pregnant with my 2nd child to control and minimise morning sickness.
The most expensive spice. Have you ever wondered why this spice is so expensive? Saffron is obtained from saffron crocus, a flower that has lilac coloured petals. There are always three strands in the flower. These strands can only be picked by hand in order to remove them from the plant. According to the research it takes around 225000 strands to make up 1lb of saffron spice. As I mentioned before there are only three strands or stigmas in each flower, this means that around 75000 flowers are used to make that small quantity. Once these strands are handpicked, they carefully laid on a sieve and cured over heat to amplify its flavour. This process is very labour intensive. Hence, the price of saffron spice is high.
Although saffron has a very strong flavour, I mainly use it for its health benefits and colour properties. In my childhood my mum used to give “magic milk”, as my mum used to call it, to all of us. The reason she used to call it magic milk is, it had honey, ground nuts and saffron. She always used to say that almonds, nuts with saffron boost your memory. Believe it or not that was my favourite drink of the day. Research show that several components of saffron may boost the memory and improve learning skills. I am sure there are lots of research on medicinal properties of saffron which you can find on internet.
I just love cinnamon. Mostly I use Ceylon cinnamon, or should I say the real cinnamon sticks in my cooking. Well, there are two types of cinnamon you find – Ceylon cinnamon and Cassia Cinnamon. I am not going much into explanation as there is a fantastic video on youtube, which explains beautifully the different types of cinnamon (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VAS7jR0WwEc ) . It’s the smell, taste and some health benefits of Ceylon cinnamon attracts me. There are various ways you can enjoy the taste of cinnamon –
· In tea or coffee
· On top of sliced fruit, yogurt, toast, hot breakfast dishes
· Homemade cookies, bread, cakes
For me turmeric and black peppers are the best friends. They work together really well. As the research says curcumin turmeric has antioxidant, antiseptic, antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties, black pepper has properties that improve digestion and boosts metabolism. Greger (2015) says that the curcumin in turmeric is poorly absorbed into the bloodstream. It can not be used properly by our body because its poor bioavailability. As a result, you could be missing out its advantages to health. This is where black peeper plays an important role as it has extremely healthy bioactive component. This piperine in black pepper with curcumin in turmeric enhances curcumin absorption by up to 2000% (Goodson, 2018)
Studies have found that piperine in black pepper improves bioactivity of curcumin in human bodies. The best part is that there are no side effects of consuming turmeric and black pepper together- I told you that they are the best friends, didn’t I!
Methi (Fenugreek) seeds
Many households in India use this important ingredient in their cooking and for beauty and hair. I remember my mum using (Mehndi)henna with fenugreek seeds powder on my hair not only for colouring purposes but naturally conditioning too. This simple spice is full of goodies. My dad who has diabetes, drinks fenugreek seeds water every morning as he has been advised by his doctor. According to Ayurveda, the main reason is consumption of fenugreek seeds helps reduce blood sugar.
As mentioned in my previous blog named“Dalvi’s fine Indian Cuisine for a New Mum”, I was using fenugreek in slightly larger quantity for this new mum because there is some research, which says that fenugreek seeds help increase milk supply in new mum. The research says that fenugreek seeds have lots of iron and vitamin K that helps the new mother regain her health. They are rich in omega- 3 fatty acids that’s essential for the brain development of the baby.
In Indian kitchen no spice rack is complete without coriander seeds. It has a vibrant lemon- like flavour, making it an all-time favourite for me! It can be found in both whole and powder form, making it extremely versatile to use. According to Ayurveda, coriander is one of the spices which can transform your health. I always drink water with boiled coriander seeds when I am suffering with excessive menstrual flow. According to Ayurveda it helps regulate bleeding, making sure blood loss isn’t too high. These seeds have ability to cool down inflammation. This means it can ease gas, bloating and other symptoms of an irritated digestive system.