“He who controls the spice controls the universe.” ― Frank Herbert
For as long as I can remember, the holidays have been about spices. I have fond memories of my early childhood days when I was engulfed by pleasantly-scented clouds of cinnamon and butter during Christmas at my grandmother’s house. I would linger in her kitchen, filling my lungs with the other neighboring, wafting aromas like spicy ginger coming from the gingerbread, savory thyme sprinkled on the turkey, and pungent fresh-ground pepper dusting the plump corn kernels. My nose had detected an underlying, complex, spice-composed symphony, pervading my being with a sense of community and warmth. Nowadays, I can get a whiff of those spices and be taken back in time in an instant, calling forth those wonderful feelings.
At the culinary level, what would ice cream be like if it weren’t for vanilla or cocoa beans? How would pizza taste without oregano and garlic powder? Could Mexican dishes exist without dried chili peppers? You might find it surprising that the average American uses a minimum of four spices in every recipe. Indeed, spices are essential for dish definition and for engaging our senses in the eating experience. For many years, they have been consumed in relatively minor amounts; however, these dried parts of plants, whether seed, fruit, root, bark, or vegetative substance, play big roles in providing flavor, color, and keeping food free of harmful invaders.
In the past 20 years, researchers have developed a heightened awareness about spices, not for their culinary contribution, but for their medicinal benefits. Various traditional ways of eating, whether in India, Thailand, and even in the Mediterranean, include generous use of spices with every meal. Some researchers would say that the low rates of dementia in India are due to their intake of turmeric (about one teaspoon over a day). Similarly, the benefits of the Mediterranean diet have been touted extensively, including reducing rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Furthermore, rates of cancer have been shown to be lower in countries that use more spices. In general, scientific research has connected spices to preventing and treating more than 100 different conditions.
Therefore, as you venture into this holiday season, you may want to “spice up your life” with these jewels of the plant kingdom for a couple of reasons:
• Spices may help to keep you healthy during the holidays, especially when the inclination is to eat less nutrient-dense foods. They provide a low-calorie means to obtaining strong antioxidant and potent anti-inflammatory actions due to the vitamins, minerals, and different phytonutrients they contain. Moreover, because of their anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal properties, spices assist us in keeping our immune systems robust during this traditional cold and flu season. When we feel our digestive system tangled in a knot of stress, we may benefit from carminatives like fennel and cumin. Additionally, there are certain “warming” spices like cayenne and cinnamon that may help keep the wheels of our metabolic machinery moving with ease.
• Spices make a little food go a long way and allow us find more pleasure and gustatory satisfaction in the eating experience. If we dazzle food with a little spice, we may tend to feel more satisfied with a meal, making us eat less in the long run. Also, spices invite us to have fun in the food preparation, allowing our senses to engage so that our digestive juices start flowing. In the presence of spices, our appetite becomes stimulated, enabling us to enjoy and be satisfied to a greater extent with food. When a meal connects to our senses, it takes on more of a memorable significance. Associating healthier foods with aromatic spices is one way to create a favorable experience, while at the same time, enforce healthy eating behaviors.
• Spices make great gifts for family and friends. There is perhaps nothing more heart-warming than creating homemade presents with meaning. Spices give us lots of options to explore, including making spice blends, spiced ghees (clarified butter), honeys, salts, oils, teas, and sprinkles. Tailored spices in these applications help the food or beverage to smell good with the added benefit of a medicinal quality. One of my favorites is to use spices to make not just edible goods but also personal care products like foot bath salts (using oregano as an anti-fungal), hair rinses (rosemary works great), facial masks (there are many good recipes for turmeric masks) and even soap (e.g., lavender).
If you are looking to get more spices into your everyday eating, here are some fun ideas to explore:
• Drinks: Add spices to smoothies or to steamed milk (e.g., cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom); substitute tea by steeping dried lemongrass or mint in hot water.
• Salads and Sandwiches: Add chives, basil, fennel or mustard seeds, cumin, and/or mint to leafy green salads, tuna or chicken salads, or sandwiches; garlic, basil, and ginger, added to oil (like olive oil) and balsamic vinaigrette make for a spice-infused salad dressing.
• Condiments: Eat more mustard (contains turmeric); add freshly grated garlic and ground pepper to mayonnaise.
• Meats: Marinate lean meats in curry powder to tenderize. Make a dill-lemon sauce for fish dishes.
• Vegetables: Stir fry vegetables in a curry powder for an Indian flair or with ginger and garlic for an Asian twist.
• Eggs: Add extra flavor to scrambled eggs with a handful of fresh parsley or chives; color soft tofu with turmeric as an egg-scramble substitute.
• Fruits: Simmer fruits with a cinnamon quill and vanilla beans.
• Grains: Add saffron to savory rice or make a rice pudding with cardamom, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Add oregano, ground rosemary, and cracked peppercorns to pasta.
This wintry season, invite spices to warm your body, tickle your taste buds, wake up your mind, and penetrate your soul with an abundance of gifts including sweet, astringent, sour, earthy and savory flavors along with healing and health.