By Casey Seidenberg
While sprinkling cinnamon on oatmeal one morning, I told my boys that people once believed that cinnamon grew in deep caves infested with poisonous snakes and that winged monsters guarded other spices. My boys didn’t believe me. Though the monsters were legend, spices were for a long time deemed so valuable they were believed to need protection.
When my boys asked how the little jars in our cabinet could be that important, I explained that food was pretty bland in medieval times, especially in winter months and when fresh food wasn’t available. Spices made the same meat and rice palatable night after night. Spices were seen as a sign of wealth: The more someone used, the more prosperous they appeared. And spices weren’t just for seasoning food; they were also used as medicine. People didn’t have antibiotics and cough suppressants; they had turmeric, cayenne and cumin. In fact, many of our pharmaceuticals today are modeled after the healing properties of plants, herbs and spices.
Prices may have gone down since the days of spice traders’ legends, but that doesn’t mean spices aren’t a valuable part of a healthful diet. Many spices aid in digestion and nutrient absorption when paired with beans, dairy and meats, and spices continue to add pleasing flavors to chicken and rice.
Spices are virtually effortless to have on hand and to use. They need very little space in the kitchen. Ground spices don’t require chopping or preparing; just a simple shake or spoonful will do.
Here are a few spices that are simple to incorporate into everyday meals.
Cardamom is used in alternative medicine to remove toxins. It has also been linked to anti-tumor activity.
● Use it to make chai tea, or add it to coffee.
● Flavor curries and rice dishes.
● Give meat a wood-smoked flavor with a rub of cardamom, salt and pepper.
Capsicum, the active ingredient in cayenne pepper, has been shown to increase circulation and contribute to weight loss.
● Use it to flavor chilies, tacos and Cajun dishes.
● Add it to tea or lemonade.
Cinnamon is popular in Chinese medicine for its antioxidant properties. It’s also been shown to enhance glucose sensitivity.
● Toss it in oatmeal or other whole-grain breakfast cereals.
● Sprinkle it on sweet potato fries, squash, carrots or other roasted vegetables.
● Dust it on sauteed dark leafy greens.
● Mix it into black bean dishes.
● Stir it into milk for an evening drink.
Traditionally, cumin was added to foods to aid in digestion and the absorption of nutrients. Recently, cumin has been shown to have antibacterial qualities, especially associated with the digestive tract.
● Use it to flavor chilies, lentil soups, pork dishes, hummus and Mexican meals.
Ginger is often recommended for nausea and an upset stomach, especially associated with pregnancy. It has also shown anti-inflammatory properties.
● Combine it with honey for a fresh tea.
● Sprinkle it in smoothies or fresh juices.
● Use it to flavor stir-fry dishes, soups and fish marinades.
As common as we find it today, black pepper was one of the most sought-after and expensive spices during the spice trade era. It has been proved to lower blood lipids and inhibit cholesterol absorption.
● Grind it on anything, even sweet dishes.
● Add it at the end of cooking because it becomes bitter with long periods of cooking.
Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, “has been shown to exhibit antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and anticancer activities and thus has a potential against various malignant diseases, diabetes, allergies, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease and other chronic illnesses,” according to a review in Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology.
● Sprinkle it on Cauliflower “Popcorn.”
● Add it to curry dishes, marinades and salad dressings.
● Mix it with honey to ease a cough.
● Add it to a child’s milk, which could help with protein digestion, according to “The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia.”
● Make tea with a quarter-teaspoon of ground turmeric boiled in a cup of water and then strained. Add honey and lemon.
Spices last a while, but they lose their flavor over time, so buy them in usable quantities. The ground versions lose flavor faster than their whole counterparts. Seal tightly in glass containers, and store in the dark, away from the heat of the oven, for optimal freshness. Many plastic spice containers contain the harmful chemical BPA, so glass is best. Never buy a spice rack with spices in it! Chances are they are not fresh, and there might be ones you won’t use. Choose the spices you desire and look for expiration dates.
First published in the Washington Post on Thursday, January 9, 2014.