For thousands of years, spices have been valued as a prized commodity throughout the world. In times gone by, traders would sail for weeks across turbulent seas to faraway lands, offering up their prized possessions in return for vibrant flavours, fragrances and colours. Spices were much more than just a cooking ingredient; they were a currency of their own.
The exotic flavours that spices brought to food were obvious for all to see – but it was for their many health benefits that they were so highly regarded. Without doubt, the spice rack was considered a gastronomic gem and a powerful medicine cabinet in equal measure.
Nowadays, exotic spices from around the world are easy to take for granted as they line our supermarket shelves in alphabetical order. But just because they are readily available, doesn’t make them any less special. Not only do they have the power to turn even the blandest of foods into a culinary masterpiece, spices can have a seriously beneficial impact on our health.
Over the next two articles, we’ll be examining the many health benefits of some common household spices, and take a look at how to use them in your own kitchen.
Let’s get to it!
Origin: India and Sri Lanka
Flavour: Warm, sweet, aromatic
Pairs well with: Cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, mint, anise, citrus, lentils, lamb, dark chocolate, pears.
The benefits: In Ayurveda, the ancient Indian practice of health and healing, Cardamom is often used to treat indigestion and stomach upset. Cardamom is also a natural diuretic, helping to eliminate waste from the liver, kidneys and bladder. It is also great for oral health, used to treat mouth ulcers, throat infections, and bad breath.
How to use: To extract the cardamom seeds from their pods, gentle bash them in a mortar and pestle. Grind into a fine powder and use sparingly in both sweet and savoury dishes. To soothe an upset tummy, mix a little cardamom with some ginger and raw honey in a mug of warm almond milk.
Origin: Although it is named after the city of Cayenne in French Guiana, Cayenne Pepper can grow in a variety of climates and is widely used in Indian, Middle Eastern, Arabic, African and Mexican cuisine.
Flavour: Hot, fiery
Pairs well with: Paprika, garlic, cumin, coriander, oregano, beef, chicken, eggs, rice, chickpeas, onions, tomatoes, coffee, dark chocolate
The health benefits: Cayenne has natural thermogenic properties that have been shown to raise metabolism, making it a popular ingredient in many fat burning supplements. It is a powerful anti-inflammatory, a known circulation booster, and is often used during detox programmes and cleanses.
How to use: Cayenne is extremely versatile, and great for adding a little heat to your favourite dishes. Use it in marinades, home-made sauces, or combined with other spices in curries and chillies. Believe it or not, it is also great with dark chocolate and coffee!
Origin: Sri Lanka, Bangladesh
Flavour: Sweet, warming, fragrant, Pairs well with: Ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, apples, pears, plums, bananas, dates, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, pumpkin, pecans
The health benefits: Cinnamon has been shown to lower blood sugar levels, improve insulin sensitivity, and decrease the insulin spike that occurs when eating a sugary or carbohydrate rich meal. Coincidentally, it pairs incredibly well with many sweet foods! Cinnamon is also incredibly rich in antioxidants, with the ORAC scale noting that it is the third most antioxidant rich food known to man. The antioxidants in cinnamon have been linked to the prevention of neurodegenerative diseases, heart disease, and various cancers.
How to use: You can buy cinnamon as a powder, or as whole sticks. It is found in almost all world cuisine, most notably Middle Eastern and Asian dishes. Use in either sweet or savoury recipes. Unbeatable sprinkled onto roasted sweet potato wedges, or used with orchard fruits such as apples, pears and plums.
Flavour: Pungent, sharp, subtle sweetness
Pairs well with: Cinnamon, ginger, pork, venison, apples, pears, plums
The health benefits: Cloves have a long standing history in traditional herbal medicine, thanks to their natural anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties. They are often used to treat bacterial imbalances such as candida, and as a treatment for intestinal parasites. Cloves are also used to treat infections, especially in the respiratory tract, and have been shown to support the immune system and prevent colds and flu. Cloves have the highest antioxidant capacity known to man, according to the ORAC scale.
How to use: Cloves are very strong, so use sparingly! Pierce them into orchard fruits before baking, grind and add small amounts to fragrant curries and tagines, or combine with cinnamon and ginger for a classic ‘pecan pie’ spice.
Origin: North Africa, Asia
Flavour: Fresh, fragrant, citrusy
Pairs well with: Cumin, ginger, chilli, lemongrass, lemon, lime, coconut, garlic, fish, chicken, cauliflower, parsnips, mango
The health benefits: Technically the ‘berries’ of the coriander herb, coriander seeds encourage the production of enzymes in the digestive tract to help with the absorption of vitamins and minerals. They have also been shown to improve fasting blood sugar levels and improve insulin sensitivity.
How to use: Coriander seeds are a mainstay in Indian, Chinese, Thai, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Southern European and African cuisine, lending a fresh, citrusy twist to just about any dish. They are the base of many common household spice blends, including garam masala and harissa. Use in curries, as a marinade for meat, or as a seasoning for vegetables.
Origin: South East Europe
Flavour: Warm, earthy, pungent
Pairs well with: Coriander, paprika, garlic, ginger, onion, oregano, chilli, pork, chicken, fish, tomatoes, lemon, orange, cauliflower, pistachio
The health benefits: In Ayurveda, cumin is known as ‘Jira’ meaning ‘the spice that helps digestion.’ Cumin helps in the production of enzymes and soothes the digestive tract, and is often used as a treatment for diarrhoea, constipation, and GI distress. It has also been linked to an improvement in sleep quality and an increase in memory and recall.
How to use: Cumin and coriander go hand in hand in a wide range of world cuisine. Use the pair as a base for curries, stews, marinades and sauces. Cumin pairs brilliantly with lighter meats such as chicken and fish, often accompanied by a squeeze of citrus.
Be sure to read the second part in the series here!