How To Use Spices and Their Health Benefits

I have always felt that Nature has provided us with a means to stay healthy and cure ailments or at least lessen their effects and it was our responsibility to unlock its secrets by trying to better understand it. Luckily for me, I was born in a nation where the population has done just that for centuries. India is known as the land of spices. Ayurvedic and Homeopathic medicines along with Yoga are incorporated into daily routine in India.

Having benefitted from these remedies myself, I carry on the tradition and keep these items in my pantry and use them for my family as the need arises. I will discuss how to incorporate these spices into recipes and will give you recipes for how to use them.

Spices should not be added in random order as they will either lose their impact or worse, impart bitterness if they burn before the other seasonings have had the chance to work their magic. The rules of thumb for getting the most out of spices are:

  • Whole spices should be put into the cooking oil at the beginning before the addition of any wet ingredients like vegetables so that the flavors (oils) from the spice are better able to season the cooking oil;
  • Whole spices are added in the order of their cooking properties and their ability to be heated without burning. For example, mustard seeds are added first to help them bloom in the oil and pop (like popcorn) with the other spices following in quick succession.
  • Whole spices should be toasted gently in a dry skillet (with no oil) before grinding so that their oils are released with the heat before grinding;
  • Most ground spices, except turmeric and cayenne powder, are best added at the end of cooking so as not to lose their delicate oils (which impart the flavors of the spice) with prolonged cooking. Otherwise, you are just throwing your money away and not getting the results you want;
  • It is best to grind spices at home, a little at a time as opposed to buying them pre-ground as you will lose not only flavor but their health benefits;
  • Whole, dried cayenne pepper is often broken onto bits by hand before adding it to the oil. It is usually the last spice you add to the oil before the addition of vegetables;
  • Cayenne powder is more potent than its whole counterpart. It is always added directly to the oil just before the addition of the vegetables. However, it will burn if it is heated for more than a minute or two; and,
  • Turmeric, like cayenne powder, should be added just before the addition of the vegetables.

These ingredients may be purchased at your local Indian grocer. For this reason, I have given you the name of the spice both in English and Hindi as that is the name (written phonetically in the English alphabet) you will find it under when you go shopping.

Spices impart specific flavors and aromas that enhance the overall flavor of the dish when used correctly. Moreover, they have a lot of health benefits. The list below specifies:

  • The name of the spice;
  • The flavor(s) it imparts;
  • How and when it may be used; and, finally,
  • It’s health benefits.

I will add to this list regularly. I will also include specific foods used in Asia that are beneficial to your health.

1.Adrak (ginger)Sharp, spicy. Used fresh in cooking. It is added after the oil has been seasoned by whole spices. It is added after the onions as it tends to burn easily whereas onions require more time to caramelize. It is added alongside garlic as they both have similar browning properties. It is oftentimes pickled. It is used as a condiment to garnish vegetarian dishes like Chole (white chickpea stew); Dahi Vada (lentil dumplings in yogurt); and, toasted lightly in butter and added to Saag (cooked, pureed mustard greens). It is used in its powdered form to season certain kinds of Ladoos (a kind of Indian Granola ball made and eaten for health reasons). It’s powdered form is used to make candy-like pills called “Churun” used as a digestive aid and other forms to combat nausea. Used to treat nausea. It is an anti-inflammatory and aids in the discomfort caused by osteoarthritis. It is a strong anti-oxidant; helps relieve menstrual pain; it is good for lowering cholesterol and blood sugar; and, helps you lose weight.

2. Ajwain (carom seeds)Astringent, sharp. Add last to season cooking oil as it is very strong and may turn bitter. It is used in making Kari (a stew made from gram flour) and added to lentil batters as it helps combat gas and bloating. Generally used in doughs or made into decoctions with a little salt for gas pain. Chew 1/2 a teaspoon of the seeds with 1/8 teaspoon of salt to get instant relief from acidity and/or gas pain. Good for indigestion and reducing gas. A decoction of the seeds is ingested with the addition of a little salt as a digestive aid. It is an anti-inflammatory. Carom is also an anti-oxidant and has anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. It is also high in iron.

3. Amchur Powder (green mango powder)Sour, slightly sweet, fruity. Used only in its powdered form. It is added to cooked food after turning the burner off. It is a large component in Chaat Masala, a condiment, sprinkled over Indian savory snacks like Papadi Chaat, Fruit and Potato Chaat, bean salads, etc.. It is used alone to impart a bright note to bland vegetarian dishes such as Lotus root, boiled black chickpeas, squash, potato, and yam dishes. Added to ground meat curry (Keema) to add a bright, sour note. Added to vegetable stuffing for Parathas (Indian stuffed flatbreads). Boosts digestion, contains vitamins A, C, D, and B6 which help your immune system. Amchur is also an antioxidant. It stimulates detoxification; helps in weight loss; and, is good for the heart.

4. Anardana (dried pomegranate seeds)Sour, fruity. If using it in the powdered form to season cooked food, add it after the burner has been turned off. Used whole or in powder form to season vegetable stuffings when making flatbreads (Parathas) or savory pastries (Samosas and Kachoris). Used to season boiled, dry bean dishes (kale chole) and potato and vegetable cutlets (Tikis). Made into candy and eaten. Natural aphrodisiac; lowers blood pressure; improves heart health; and, improves memory. It contains punicic acid, an Omega-5 fatty acid that helps fight breast cancer.

5. Annatto (Achiote) seeds – These are used in Latin and Carribean foods. – Fruity, mildly peppery. Imparts a yellow color and earthy flavor. Oil is flavored with these seeds and used to prepare Latin, Carribean, and Phillipino dishes. According to www.organicfacts.net website: Annatto has been used to promote healthy digestion, strengthen bones, prevent neural tube defects, promote healing and reduces scarring, lower fevers, boost eye health, eliminate headaches, reduce nausea, and protect respiratory distress. It is also used as an antioxidant and bowel cleanser. Annatto seed paste is sometimes put directly on the affected area to treat burns and vaginal infections and to repel insects. A paste made from Annato seeds is a natural treatment for Gonnorhea.

6. Dal Chini (Cinnamon)Sweet, sharp. Whole cinnamon is added as one of the first spices to season cooking oil. Indians use it for savory dishes, like rice and meat. Certain vegetarian dishes also benefit from it. It is also used as a component of Garam Masala and Chai Masala. Western cultures use it for desserts, bread and to flavor drinks such as apple cider. Cinnamon improves the body’s sensitivity to insulin, thus reducing blood sugar. It is an anti-inflammatory and helps reduce joint pain; it’s high in antioxidants (even more so than oregano and garlic); and, it is a natural food preservative. It also helps with weight loss.

7. Dhania (fresh coriander)Citrus-like, Soapy. Either you’ll love it or hate it. Both leaves and stems are used as a condiment and added to food at the end of cooking as decoration, an aromatic and a flavor enhancer. It is used all over Asia and in Latin America. It is made into chutneys and salsas. It is chopped and added to salads. It is baked as part of stuffing into bread such as parathas. It is added to vegetarian and meat dishes alike. Coriander may protect your heart by lowering blood pressure and LDL (bad) cholesterol while increasing HDL (good) cholesterol. It is an antimicrobial, antioxidant and reduces the symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome such as bloating or gas.

8. Haldi (turmeric powder)Bitter and earthy. Turmeric is added to the oil after all the other spices during the cooking process. Used in powder form or the fresh, grated or minced form to season vegetable and meat dishes. Made into a pickle and eaten fresh. Boiled using fresh minced or powdered into a Tisane. Powdered form mixed with yogurt and black pepper and consumed. Added in powdered form to milk and consumed to combat sickness like cold/flu/throat ache or help reduce swelling in the body. Mixed with oil (coconut or any neutral tasting oil) into a paste as a wound dressing to prevent infection and reduce swelling; or, rubbed onto the face as a skin cleanser. The main active ingredient is curcumin. CURCUMIN IS POORLY ABSORBED BY THE BODY AND MUST BE CONSUMED WITH BLACK PEPPER TO INCREASE ITS ABSORPTION BY 2000%. If you are using a turmeric supplement, make sure it contains piperine (BioPerine) to help with curcumin absorption, otherwise, the curcumin will just pass through your body and not be absorbed. Curcumin is fat-soluble, so it is good to eat turmeric with a fatty meal. Curcumin is a powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant. Fights Alzheimer’s and depression by increasing a growth hormone (BDNF) that increases the growth of new neurons. It helps minimize the risk of heart disease. It helps fight cancer.

9. Hari Ilachi (green cardamom)Sweet, slightly astringent. Green cardamom can be added early on in the cooking process. It is used in both sweet and savory dishes. Green is a major component in Chai Masala. It is used to season drinks such as Mango Lassi. It complements dairy-based desserts. It is used in making biriyanis and lamb or goat curries. Cardamom is chewed whole as a breath freshener. It helps to add a little sugar in the blender to help grind cardamom into a fine powder. Cardamom is a natural bactericide and helps prevent cavities; helps lower blood pressure; aids in digestion; and, helps clean out the urinary tract, bladder, and the kidneys as it is a natural diuretic.

10. Imli (Tamarind)Sour and slightly sweet. It can be eaten raw, but is most often made into chutney and used as a condiment; or pulp and used in recipes for pulses, meats or noodle dishes; or as a refreshing and nutritious drink; and, as a spicy, sour and sweet candy. Tamarind pulp has the following health benefits:

  • Every 100 grams of tamarind meets 15% of your daily iron intake;
  • It’s a good solution for both constipation and diarrhea;
  • It boosts metabolism and aids in weight loss;
  • It has a strong anti-oxidant as it is extremely high in vitamin C;
  • It’s an anti-inflammatory;
  • It improves white-blood-cell production, thereby improving the immune system; and,
  • It helps control blood sugar levels.

Tamarind consumption should be limited by pregnant women. While tamarind has benefits for both the developing fetus and the mother, it also reduces the effectiveness of certain medicines like aspirin. It is best to eat it in moderation while pregnant. However, breastfeeding mothers are advised against its consumption because its high vitamin C content can cause digestive issues in newborn babies. This is true of other foods that are high in vitamin C as well.

11. Jeera/Geera (cumin seeds) Earthy, smoky. The whole form is added as one of the first spices when seasoning cooking oil. If using it in the powdered form to season cooked food, add it after the burner has been turned off. Used whole when flavoring cooking oil in vegetarian and meat dishes. The whole form is added as one of the first spices when seasoning cooking oil. Used as a powder either by itself or as part of Garam Masala after cooking for both vegetarian and meat dishes. Whole seeds are boiled in water to make a tisane to aid digestion (reduces gas), for weight loss, and relaxation. Rich in iron – it has 66g of iron per 100g which is five times the daily dose. Aids in digestion; improves blood cholesterol; promotes weight loss and fat reduction; and, helps promote sleep. It also helps with diabetes. It has both stimulating and calming effects. Improves cognitive function and helps prevent cognitive disorders such as dementia and Alzheimers. It also improves lactation.

12. Kala Namak (Indian Black Salt)Salty, sour. Used in the same manner as table salt when cooking. It is used extensively as a condiment in cooking and in spice blends called Chaat Masala. Black salt has comparatively less sodium, it helps reduce bloating. In Ayurvedic medicine, it is considered to be a “cooling” spice. That is, it is calming and alkaline. Black salt is useful for curing depression problems. It helps to preserve both, melatonin and serotonin hormones, which are essential for a peaceful and unhindered sleep. Black salt is rich in potassium which helps to relax muscles and reduces muscle cramps. Potassium also helps to improve the absorption of many other minerals. Black Salt is recommended by many health professionals for its medicinal benefits as it is an antacid, anti-flatulent, antioxidant, digestive stimulant and a laxative. The American Society for Microbiology and European Pharmaceutical and Medical Research Journals have touted the benefits of this salt.

13. Kali Mirch (black pepper) – Sharp, spicy. Whole peppercorns can be added early on when using them to season cooking oil. However, the ground form is only used toward the end of cooking. Black pepper is used as a condiment and a food preservative. It is one of the components of Garam Masala and Chaat Masala. It is used whole to season doughs like Mathi (savory crip wafer). It is most often ground and used as a condiment in cooked foods. The ground form, when mixed with honey is used to relieve coughs and sore throats and improve breathing. Whole peppercorns are brewed into a tisane to effect the same benefits. For best results, don’t buy it preground as you’ll lose not only flavor but also many health benefits. BLACK PEPPER INCREASES THE BIOAVAILABILITY of certain other nutrients, especially, but not limited to CURCUMIN, WHICH IS THE ACTIVE INGREDIENT OF TURMERIC. It helps reduce swelling; it is a known antibacterial; it’s an anti-inflammatory; and, is high in antioxidants. It is a natural pain killer. In ancient times, it was used in conjunction with salt to preserve meat. It helps drain the sinuses.

14. Kari Patta (curry leaves)Very aromatic with a nutty aroma and pungent taste. Added last as a seasoning for oil. It burns easily. Used when making potato-based or lentil-based dishes. Only used in its whole form. Very popular in South Indian and Central Indian cuisine. It can be used in dry vegetarian cooking like Sabudana Khichdi and Upamas (a gruel made from cream of wheat); as a condiment over steamed lentil and rice cakes such as Dhoklas, Handvas, and Rava Idlis; and, as a seasoning for lentil soups like Sambar. Curry leaves are made into a paste and serve as an antiseptic for minor cuts and burns. They have antioxidant properties; help lower blood sugar; and, help relieve nausea and morning sickness.

15. Lal Mirch (cayenne pepper)Spicy, sharp. Added directly after the dried whole spices either in its fresh or powdered form. When using its whole, dried form adds it in the middle when seasoning the oil. Minced and mixed in Chaat and bean salads or used whole, as a condiment or in a mixed vegetable salad. Hot peppers are often eaten as pickles. Powdered, whole dried, or fresh minced chili peppers are used in cooking and added directly after the dried spices to season the cooking oil. Hot peppers have anti-bacterial; anti-fungal; anti-inflammatory; and, anti-oxidant properties. It helps fight the cold/flu; reduces joint pain; improves metabolism; promotes weight loss; and, is rich in vitamins A, B6, C, K1, and minerals like potassium and copper.

16. Laung (cloves)Astringent, sharp. Whole cloves are added later into the cooking oil but before the powdered turmeric or cayenne pepper. Ground cloves as a component in Garam Masala and Chai Masala. Cloves are used in savory dishes such as rice pullaos or biriyanis and to flavor meat and vegetable gravies. Western cultures use cloves in desserts. Clove oil is used as a natural anesthetic for toothaches. Whole cloves are chewed as a breath freshener, they help improve liver health, and can kill off bacteria.

17. Nimbu Ka Saat (Citric acid crystals) Very tart. It’s a substitute for lemon or lime juice. It adds a tangy punch of flavor without having to add a wet ingredient that may ruin a recipe. Because it is extremely tart, it should be used sparingly. Indians use this crystalline form in place of lemon or lime as a seasoning. Citric acid is a natural food preservative and prevents food from darkening. Citric acid is a nutritional supplement as it aids in the absorption of other nutrients such as zinc. It occurs naturally in all citric fruits but can be manufactured as well. It also protects against kidney stones.

18. Pudina (mint)Sharp. Mint is used in its dried form as a condiment. It is added to vegetable and meat gravies after the burner has been turned off. Its powdered form is used to season yogurt and made into a tisane. Its fresh form is used to make chutneys and spiced drinks (gol guppa da pani). Mint helps reduce nausea and reduces fever. It is high in antioxidants and contains menthol that not only breaks up phlegm and mucus but also relieves a sore throat. It is used to soothe your stomach and aids in digestion. However, in some people that suffer from acid reflux, it may worsen symptoms.

19. Rye (mustard seed)Whole spice tastes nutty; powdered form tastes sour and sharp. Used whole, it is one of the first spices to go into the oil. It must sizzle and pop in the oil to release its flavor. It is used to season oil in vegetarian cooking. It is used most often as a seasoning for pulses and potatoes. Some use it as a seasoning for yogurt in place of cumin. Its powdered form is an essential ingredient in making Kangi (a beet and carrot fermented drink). Rye is rich in selenium, a strong anti-inflammatory that helps reduce the severity of asthma attacks and certain symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Rye has strong antiseptic and antibacterial properties. It is rich in calcium, manganese, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, protein, and fiber.

20. Sabudana (Tapioca pearls)Chewy, bland. Used in different sizes from powders (for bread making), small pearls (puddings) to large pearls (used to make bubble tea). Tapioca is used for both sweet and savory dishes. It is also used as a thickening agent in sauces in place of corn starch. Sometimes confused with Sagu as they are similar in appearance both in their raw form and cooked form. Think of them as brothers from another mother. According to www.nutritionvalue.org, tapioca consists mostly of carbohydrates where 100g contains nearly 360 calories and 40 carbs. Sagu, although nearly the same in calories is even higher in carbs at 83 g per 100g of Sagu. Both tapioca and Sagu have very little nutrition otherwise. Although, both Sagu and tapioca are a good option for those that have allergies to gluten, or grain; and, they both contain very little cholesterol, fat, or sodium.

21. Saunf (fennel seeds) Licorice-like taste, slightly sweet. It is added in its whole form to the cooking oil in the middle of the seasoning process. Used either whole or roasted and ground in vegetable stuffings for Indian savory snacks like Kachoris or Samosas. Chewed whole (with or without sugar) to help freshen breath; aid in digestion; and, combat acidity after a meal. Fennel seeds are often boiled to make a flavored tisane (similar to Jeera/Cumin). Fennel is used ground or whole in Chai Masala (Tea flavoring). It helps detoxify the body; purifies the blood; controls heart rate and blood pressure; and, is rich in potassium.

22. Sooka Dhania (coriander seeds)Smoky (if left whole) and sour (if ground). It is added in its split form to the cooking oil in the middle of the seasoning process. If using it in the powdered form to season cooked food, add it after the burner has been turned off. Used in powder form to season vegetable stuffings when making flatbreads (Parathas) or savory pastries (Samosas and Kachoris). Used roasted and coarsely ground to season cooking oil in vegetarian and meat gravies. Ground into a powder and used at the end to layer flavor in both vegetarian and meat dishes. It is one of the components of Garam Masala. Whole seeds are boiled into a tisane to relieve menstrual cramps during heavy flow. High in fiber and aids in bowel movement; promotes insulin production. Rich in copper, zinc, and iron and vitamins K, C, and B which are good for healthy skin and hair. It assists in weight loss and reduces body fat. If you plant coriander seeds to get fresh coriander plants.

23. Sooki Methi (dried, crushed fenugreek leaves)Earthy, bitter. Whole seeds are used to season oil but should be added late as they are bitter. Toasted, crushed leaves are used to season food after turning the burner off. Toasted, crushed leaves are used as a condiment for gravies after cooking either meats or vegetables. Toasted, crushed leaves are added as a seasoning for bread dough and Mathi dough. Fresh fenugreek leaves make a delicious vegetable dish when added to potatoes. It promotes lactation for breastfeeding mothers; it reduces the symptoms of menopause; reduces menstrual comfort; lowers cholesterol; controls diabetes; and, is an appetite suppressant. If you plant the seeds, you’ll get fresh fenugreek.

24. Tej Patta (Bay laurel) Earthy. Whole leaves are to the oil last, after the addition of other whole spices. Whole bay leaves are used to season sauces and gravies. They are generally removed before serving. It can be boiled into a tisane for reaping their health benefits. According to the Flushing hospital newsletter online, Bay leaves are a rich source of vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Also, regular inclusion of bay leaves in meals promotes general health. They have been proven to be useful in the treatment of migraines.

Written by Anju Kapur of Anju’s Table. All content and images on this site are copyright protected. Please do not use any of my images without my permission. Should you wish to share this recipe on your site, please add a link to this post as the source.

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