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.
Allspice can alleviate hypertension and indigestion.
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.
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.
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
Compatible spices: Black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, cocoa, coriander, cumin, garlic, ginger, mustard, nutmeg, onion, paprika and turmeric
Best with: Fruit pies, sweet breads, pumpkin, meats, squash, mulling and pickling spices
Try this Lebanese 7 Spice Mix using allspice.
Try incorporating any of these spices into your dishes to alleviate gastrointestinal distress: allspice, caraway, cardamom, celery seed, chili, coriander, fennel, nutmeg and star anise. Remember, every person reacts a bit differently to various spices. It’s best to try spices one at a time to find which ones work well with your body.
Astragalus root has a sweet taste and smells earthy, similar to cut grass. The dried root looks akin to a tongue depressor, and it’s long been used as a tonic and immune-booster in Chinese medicine. Like bay leaves, astragalus root is generally removed from dishes before they are served.
Medicinal uses: Heart tonic; immune booster beneficial during cold and flu season and for those with compromised systems; combats fatigue; assists balance of bodily fluids
Compatible spices: Garlic, ginger and onion
Best with: Soups, stews and broths
The easiest way to eat astragalus is in an immune-boosting soup. You can find the dried root in health-food stores or online at mountain roseherbs.com. It’s often combined with the equally impressive immune-enhancing powers of medicinal mushrooms such as shiitake and maitake, as well as ginger and garlic. Find our recipe for this immune-boosting soup on our website. Or, simply add about an ounce of dried astragalus root to any soup recipe as you start the broth. Remove astragalus before serving.
Black cumin is often mistaken for the more common spice cumin, but these two do not taste alike and come from unrelated plants. Nutty and lemony with a hint of caraway, black cumin is best known for its role in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine. To speak to its medicinal reputation in the Middle East, it’s said that black cumin seed “cures everything but death.”
Medicinal uses: Prevents and alleviates symptoms of asthma, allergies, colitis, general pain, headache, ulcers, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, dermatitis and eczema; acts as an immune-booster specific to age-related immune decline; has been used in a plethora of cancer studies
Compatible spices: Cardamom, chili, cinnamon, cocoa, coconut, clove, garlic, ginger, nutmeg, turmeric and vanilla
Best with: Chutney, stew, curry, rice, yogurt, salads, naan and rye bread, potatoes, mango and lamb
Although they’re not common in U.S. cuisine, it’s incredibly easy to incorporate black cumin seeds into a variety of dishes. One of the easiest ways may be to toss a handful into salads—or consider mixing chopped cucumber with yogurt, garlic, salt, pepper, chopped mint and a handful of black cumin seeds for a healthful, refreshing starter or side dish. They can also be added to olive oil and garlic and used as a tasty dip for bread; or tossed into sauces, casseroles, rice, stews and soups. Cold-pressed black cumin seed oil is also available in health-food stores, and can be taken plain by the teaspoonful, or added to sauces, dressings or smoothies.
Caraway is said to be the oldest condiment used in European cooking. It’s highly popular in German, Russian, Dutch, Indian and Scandinavian cuisine, with a taste that brings to mind fennel and anise. It’s often used to flavor bread and potato dishes, as well as cooked cabbage and coleslaw.
Medicinal uses: Alleviates and prevents symptoms of acid reflux, gastrointestinal pain, diabetes, food poisoning, high cholesterol, constipation, tuberculosis, bronchitis and cough
Compatible spices: Allspice, cardamom, chili, cinnamon, coriander, fennel seed and onion
Best with: Soup, stew, pork, potatoes, mushrooms, cabbage, cooked fruits, and rye and pumpernickel breads
Celery seed is quite pungent and has a grassy or earthy aroma. Although closely related to the celery we eat as a vegetable, it’s actually from a different plant. Celery seed offers a highly concentrated celery flavor to foods, which is why it’s often used in pickling mixes and brine recipes. Many recognize its sharp taste in connection with Bloody Mary mix.
Medicinal uses: Alleviates symptoms of colds, bronchitis, asthma, flu, indigestion, water retention, liver disease, gout, stroke, ulcers, high blood pressure, cholesterol and menstrual cramps
Compatible spices: Allspice, black pepper, caraway, chili, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, fennel seed, garlic, ginger, mustard, onion and turmeric
Best with: Chicken, eggs, fish, tomatoes, chutney, pickling spices, vegetable juices and cabbage
Try this Celery Seed and Carrot Soup Recipe.
Cloves may strike us as a winter seasonal spice, but these potent and highly antioxidant studs are a staple in Chinese spice mixes and bring a distinctive taste to any dish they accompany. While they’re frequently added to sweet flavors such as apple cider and mulled wine, they can also work well in savory dishes. Consider piercing an onion all over with cloves, then using it in soup bases or broths, or in poaching liquids.
Medicinal uses: Alleviates symptoms of dental pain, stomatitis, gum disease, ulcers, blood clots and hepatitis C; combats bad breath, cold sores and infection
Compatible spices: Allspice, cardamom, chili, cinnamon, cocoa, coriander, cumin, fennel seed, ginger, nutmeg, star anise and turmeric
Best with: Apples, oranges, fruit butters, desserts, ham, pickling recipes, pumpkin and root vegetables
Coriander has a sweet, almost nutty flavor, and as one of the world’s oldest spices, it has long been renowned for alleviating tummy troubles. Coriander contains linalool and geranyl acetate, two incredibly powerful antioxidants with the ability to protect cells. These two oils could very well be why coriander proves to be so friendly to our digestive tracts.
Medicinal uses: Alleviates symptoms of colitis, constipation, bloating, colic, intestinal spasms, diarrhea, flatulence, indigestion, mouth ulcers, stomachache, hypertension, diabetes, high and low cholesterol, yeast infection and insomnia; may help prevent food poisoning
Compatible spices: Allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, coconut, cumin, fennel seed, garlic, ginger, nutmeg, onion and turmeric
Best with: Curry, meat rubs, beans, lentils, fish, lamb and vegetables
It’s said that every Indian cook has his or her own curry recipe. Curries, spice mixes that were originally created as a method to deliver medicinal herbs in a tasty way, almost always feature the spice and superfood turmeric, which imparts its deep yellow-orange hue. This blend also incorporates cloves and coriander, making it a perfect medicinal and flavorful mix. Use this blend in any recipe that calls for curry powder, or simply sprinkle it onto rice, quinoa, popcorn, scrambled eggs, baked potatoes, or steamed or sautéed veggies. Find the recipe for this homemade curry blend on our website.
Curry leaf and curry powder are two entirely different spices. Curry leaf is an herb—a relative of citrus fruits—that should be used fresh or frozen (dried, they have little to no aroma or flavor). The leaf tastes somewhat like a cross between lemon, lime and tangerine, but also has a pungent quality, adding a unique citrus component to dishes. It is often paired with chopped onion and fried in the first stages of cooking. Although some recipes call for their removal before serving, curry leaves are edible. Curry leaf is key to many dishes from Sri Lanka and southern India.
Medicinal uses: Alleviates symptoms of diabetes, diarrhea, heart disease, and high or low cholesterol; may help prevent continued deterioration of memory loss related to age and Alzheimer’s disease
Compatible spices: Allspice, chili, cinnamon, clove, coriander, cumin, fennel seed, garlic, ginger, mustard, onion and turmeric
Best with: Beans, lentils, cabbage, curry, rice, soup, chutney, seafood and meat stews
There are many variations on fried potatoes with fresh curry leaves. The key to cooking with these leaves is to fry them until they are crispy. Nearly every recipe starts with mustard seeds being added to hot oil in a pan. Once they start to pop, add fresh curry leaves and chopped onion and cook until the leaves are crispy. Many recipes also add garlic and/or dried chilies at this stage. Add diced, boiled (half-cooked to fork-tender) potatoes, season with ground cumin, salt and pepper, and fry until potatoes are golden and crisp. If you wish, top these potatoes with yogurt. Alternatively, top with cumin seeds and fresh cilantro. Try this Baby Potato Fry recipe using curry leaves.
Highly valued in the ancient world as an effective carminative and expectorant, fennel is a gentle herb nursing mothers can eat to help improve digestion in their babies. It can also help reduce menstrual cramps and water retention. Fennel seeds may be best known for their potent licorice-like taste. They play a major role in Italian meats and sauces, as well as many other Mediterranean dishes. Fennel is also an important spice in the ancient Indian medicinal system Ayurveda.
Medicinal uses: Alleviates symptoms of menstrual cramps, indigestion, cough, bronchitis, colic, arthritis, heart disease and colitis; helps alleviate memory loss related to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia
Compatible spices: Allspice, basil, black cumin seed, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, coriander, cumin, garlic, ginger, mustard, onion and turmeric
Best with: Pasta, soup, fish, pork, baked goods, pickling spices, curry, chicken and eggs
Make this Easy Digestive Dessert Recipe using fennel seeds.
Mustard seeds are of course the base flavor to the famed condiment. But these rustic, aromatic seeds can be used in a variety of applications. The seeds must be broken open and exposed to water or oil before developing their signature taste. As one of the world’s most popular spices, it sure has a taste that calls to all!
Medicinal uses: Alleviates symptoms of arthritis, migraine, asthma and prediabetes; may prevent heart disease; promotes brain and prostate health
Compatible spices: Allspice, black cumin seed, cardamom, chili, cinnamon, clove, coriander, cumin, fennel seed, garlic, ginger, onion, star anise and turmeric
Best with: Meat, pickling recipes, cabbage, marinades, vinaigrettes, potato and chicken salad, root vegetables
Try this flavorful Pickled Mustard Seeds Recipe.
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