The European spice trade was one of the major factors in the development of modern Europe from the 17th to the 19th centuries. India was a great provider of spices, but the nutritional values of spices are not well-known in modern times and in the western world. Ayurveda – the ancient Indian science of natural medicine – considers eating habits fundamental to health. This includes the use of spices in food. Ideally, spices should be cleaned and dried in the sun or oven, as uncleaned spices contain little specks of dust, glass, insects etc. Spices should be stored in airtight containers(eg. glass jars, plastic containers or tins) in a cool, dry place – to preserve their freshness. They should be kept away from direct sunlight, mositure, heat etc.

Vedic philosophy describes three different modes of material nature – sattva (goodness), rajas (passion) and tamas (ignorance) – which cover the broad spectrum of life. A person in goodness, for example is peaceful, happy, healthy and clear-headed. A person in passion is restless, subject to many desires and physically active. A person in ignorance is prone to laziness, sleep and anger. Mint, for example, is sattvic – it soothes the mind and calms the stomache. Chillis are, obviously, rajasic. As are onions and garlic – which are generally avoided in the brahminical (or spiritual/mindful) diet. Mushrooms and meat are considered tamasic and their main quality – aside from violence (in the case of meat) – is the dulling effect they generate. Spices take on similar qualities ‘under the modes’. Below are some spices and the benefits they give:

Black Pepper

Marich (Sanskrit (hereafter, S); kalimiri (Hindi, (H)))

Black pepper is a rajasic spice (‘rajas’ means in the ‘mode of passion’) and contains a lot of solar energy. The fruit is used in cooking and traditional healing. It is a very powerful digestive stimulant and it burns ama (toxic waste that builds up in the digestive system). Pepper is also a good expectorant. Black pepper is not hard on the digestive system because it does not increase pitta. Green and Red peppercorns are more rare, but have a more mature flavour than black pepper. White pepper is made from fully ripened black peppers that have had their outer shrunken skin removed. Garam masala and sambar powder feature ‘the king of spices’ in their blends. Black pepper is added to oats in during ramadan in the Middle East. Pepper is used in Malaysia in curry powder, soups and sauces. Fresh green pepper or soaked dried green pepper is used in Thailand.

Fennel (valyari or soomph (Hindi and Gujarati))

Fennel is one of the best herbs for digestion.  I got dysentry the first time I visited India and my stomach was cramping and rumbling even when I got back to South Africa. One of the ladies who visited our Temple was an ayurvedic practioner and she advised me to roast some fennel and boil into a tea. I did. And the cramps went away.  Fennel also dispels flatulence.  In India (and in Indian restaurants), they often serve sugar-coated fennel or fennel with rock salt – to aid digestion. Fennel also calms the nerves and aids mental alertness.

Cloves

Lavanga (S). Rajasic.

Cloves are the dried flower buds of the clove plant. They are good for the lungs and stomach, are mildly aphrodisiac and analgesic (eg. you can chew them when you have a tooth-ache).

Ginger (adrak (Hindi))

Ginger is a root and is considered one of the best and most sattvic of the spices. It is a panacea or universal medicine. I can say this, speaking from experience, as it is the only medicine I have used in the past 18 years. Ginger is most commonly used for respiratory and digestive illnesses. It is a good tonic for the heart and also soothes arthritis. It helps with crams (and pre-menstrual cramps brought on by cold). Ginger paste is a good pain reliever for headaches and general bodily pains. The combination of lemon, ginger and honey as a tea has a heating effect and is a wonderful cure for sore throats and colds. Ginger powder can also be obtained at spice shops.

Turmeric (haldi (H))

Turmeric is a root that looks like the orange version of ginger. It is best taken in its root form, but more commonly available as a powder. Turmeric has many healing properties, but is best known for its ability to purify the blood. When externally applied, turmeric helps clot blood and can be applied to cuts in powder form. Turmeric is also used in fasting and adds colour to food.

Seeds

It is advised to dry roast seeds before powdering, as this gives more flavour to the spices. In traditional Indian aristocratic cooking traditions, spices are crushed to making the eating experience more pleasant (who wants to keep biting into coriander seeds?).

Cumin (jeera)

Cumin is a heating spice. It is used in many North Indian curries. It has a nutty, earthy flavour and is a key spice in Indian cooking. It is usually added after mustard seeds into the braise and goes brown quite quickly. Thereafter, fresh grated ginger and chillis are added, followed by powdered spices. Cumin is added to chaas or buttermilk, which is one of the healthiest beverages according to ayurveda. Chaas aids digestion and is generally good for health.

Mustard Seeds (rai/sarsoon)

Mustard seeds come in three varieties – black, white and brown. Black mustard seeds are one of the oldest spices. Mustard seeds are usually fried in ghee/oil at a medium-high heat until the seeds turn grey and pop. The frying or braising of seeds is called chauncing. Mustards seeds have a mildly nutty flavour which tempers spices that are used in braising. Mustard seeds can also be added to oil to see if it is hot enough for making a chaunce. Mustard seeds are also used in pickles and sauerkrauts and decoratively on delicacies like khandvi and dhokla.

Coriander (dhania)

Coriander adds wonderful flavour to Indian cooking in seed and powder form. The leaves of the coriander plant also adds flavour to food and can be used, like parsley, as a garnish. Since coriander powder loses its freshness quickly, it is better to purchase coriander seeds, roast them, and crush them with a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. Coriander seeds contain dietary fibre and are a great source of iron, magnesium and manganese (which reduce blood cholestrol). Coriander is often mixed with cumin to make dhania-jeera powder. This combination is used in middle eastern dishes like falafel and in the Egyptian relish, dukka. It is one of the key ingredients in the spice combination garam masala (which just means ‘hot’ or garam ‘spices’ masala).

Asafoetida (hing)

Asafoetida apprently has Roman origins. It is a resin, though it is generally available in powdered form. It is used as a substitute for garlic and onion (by Jains and followers of brahminical culture in India), aids digestion and counters flatulence. It is a useful ingredient in salad dressings.

Bayleaf (tejpatta)

Bayleaves were introduced by the Mughals to India over 1000 years ago. Bayleaves not only add flavour to food, they also add fragrance. They are used in dals and rice dishes and even sweets. They are used to flavour stocks, soups and sauces in the west.

Cinnamon (dalchini)

Cinnamon is a fragrant bark which is sweet and aromatic. It loses flavour quickly in powdered form. It is used in pilau (fancy or masala rice) and in briyani and various curries. It is also used in sweets and chatnis and is an essential ingredient in garam masala. It is also used in chai tea (which is becoming increasingly popular in the West.

 

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