Healing Herbs and Spices in the Kitchen

From the heart-disease prevention properties of the curry leaf to the health benefits of black cumin, try these lesser-known culinary spices for flavor and health.

| September/October 2016

  • Allspice can alleviate hypertension and indigestion.
    Photo by iStock
  • Astragalus can be made into a healthy, immune-boosting soup.
    Photo by iStock
  • Use fresh curry leaves to make this Baby Potato Fry recipe
    Photo courtesy Kannamacooks.com
  • Black cumin seeds often top breads and savory pastries in the Middle East and Europe.
    Photo by iStock
  • Celery seed is frequently used in pickling mixes.
    Photo by iStock
  • Cloves are often used in dental products because they support tooth and gum health.
    Photo by iStock
  • Coriander has long been used as a digestive support.
    Photo by iStock
  • Black cumin pairs well with rice, curry or chutney.
    Photo by Sarah Gory
  • Chickpea curry is a wholesome vegetarian meal.
    Photo by iStock
  • Fennel seeds taste a bit like licorice.
    Photo by iStock
  • Exotic spices such as cumin, curry leaf and allspice carry as many health benefits as they do flavors.
    Photo by iStock

Spices are an aromatic, delicious component of daily meals for most of us. Compared with cooks in other cultures, however, North American cooks tend to use far fewer spices per dish. What’s more, while many of us are familiar with common culinary herbs and spices such as oregano, garlic, cinnamon and basil, we tend to shy away from more exotic spices such as caraway, curry leaf, clove and allspice. But by limiting our spice intake, we inadvertently deprive our bodies of high levels of antioxidants, some of which are specific to spices and cannot be made up for in other food.

All spices contain phytonutrients: naturally presiding chemicals known for alleviating cell damage while reducing and preventing inflammation. These two actions combined promote better overall health, and this increase in well-being is abundantly clear in populations who eat a diet of rich and diverse spices. Places such as India, Greece and Spain, where the traditional cuisines call for plentiful spice inclusion, all have statistically lower rates of certain diseases such as colon cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease and high cholesterol.

While the role of spices in preventing and combating diseases has only recently begun to be studied within modern medicine, these precious substances have long been thought to have healing properties. Thanks to the increase of local health markets, along with the internet, finding affordable spices is easier than ever before. However, it’s important to buy high-quality spices from retailers you trust. A few we count on include Mountain Rose Herbs, Frontier Co-op and My Spice Sage. As with any medicinal food, we recommend selecting organic when possible.

How to Store Spices for Longevity

While every spice is a bit different, most benefit from similar treatment. Spices are best bought and stored whole—their flavors are most potent when they’re ground for immediate consumption. The act of grinding spices releases their volatile oils and aromas, which escape the longer they go unused, leading to a loss in health benefits, flavor and ultimately to spoilage. When stored in an airtight container and kept in a cool, dark environment, most whole spices will last for at least two years.

1. Allspice (Pimenta dioica)

With its mix of flavors, allspice berries are sometimes mistaken for clove, cinnamon or even black pepper. Generally described as “sweet and pungent,” allspice has a kick to it, one that is a signature of the Jamaican style of cooking known as “jerk.” 

Medicinal uses: Alleviates symptoms of hypertension, indigestion, vomiting, diarrhea and menopause; is a mild muscular anesthetic and pain reliever

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