Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
It wasn’t long after I picked up yoga that I became curious about Indian food—an exciting, tasty cuisine that I’d heard could have healing properties. Unfortunately, at the time there wasn’t a single curry joint in my hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. So, left to my own devices, I started with a can of curry powder. Initially, I embraced the amber powder’s unique, robust flavor, but soon the classic mix of Indian spices struck my palate more as a single flavor than a singular one. So I turned to a fun cookbook that seemed authentic enough and set about making a simple vegetarian curry from scratch. I managed to gather up the dozen or so spices that the recipe called for and tried to follow the first few steps to the letter.
But soon after I added the mustard seed to the hot oil, my phone rang, and I lost my focus. By the time I turned my attention back to the pan, it was too late; my tiny kitchen was filled with acrid air. I couldn’t breathe, and I couldn’t see. Rather than a lovely meal, I had created a homemade version of mustard gas.
As I stood outside gasping for breath, I was in awe that something as small as mustard seed could pack so much power. But that, it seems, is the beauty of spice. A scant teaspoon of this or a pinch of that not only transforms the mundane into the delectable but, when incorporated regularly into your diet, can offer a powerful boost to your health.
Many of the spices in a well-stocked spice rack contain healing agents that are thought to have anti-inflammatory, anticancer, prodigestive, and heart-protective benefits. “It’s amazing,” says Mark Blumenthal, who is the executive director of the American Botanical Council. “Most of us don’t think of our spices as medicine, but there are biologically active substances in there. There is something very real going on.”
India’s Ayurvedic practitioners have recognized that “something very real” for thousands of years, using the spice rack and medicine cabinet almost interchangeably. From an Ayurvedic perspective, spices are at their most healthful when mixed with food in a balanced representation of six tastes: astringent, bitter, pungent, salty, sour, and sweet.
“When you get the six tastes, you will feel satisfied and able to move on from that meal,” says Patti Garland, an Ayurvedic chef and consultant in Palm Desert, California. It may sound intimidating, but cooking with all six tastes is actually relatively simple. Cook a bitter green like kale with mustard seed (pungent) and coriander (astringent), a squeeze of lemon (sour), and a dash of salt. Serve with rice, which is considered sweet.
Adding the six tastes to your diet every day is a simple way to keep your immune system in tune, Garland says. “And it’s what stops us from snacking and compulsive eating.” Additionally, it makes for a more interesting diet.
“Variety is truly the spice of life,” says Bharat Aggarwal, a biochemist for the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas in Houston. “There are hundreds of clinical trials involving turmeric and other spices, such as red chilies and black cumin. From laboratory to kitchen, our findings are the same—there’s a synergistic effect when you combine spices. So a little bit of this and a little bit of that makes sense. There’s wisdom in curry.”
Many of the studies on the healing powers of spices have focused on turmeric, often considered the backbone of Indian curries. Aggarwal’s own groundbreaking research has established the efficacy of turmeric as a powerful cancer preventive and front-line treatment.
Aggarwal suggests eating spiced food as an inexpensive step toward better health. “If you learn to cook with spices, you’re helping to avoid diseases: cancers, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, digestive disorders—even allergies,” he says.
Classic Indian dishes like curried vegetables offer a delicious way to get those medicinal powers now being confirmed by science. If you live in a city that boasts Indian takeout, you might think of curry as a hearty dish that’s overcooked and greasy. But home-cooked Indian food can be simple, healthful, fresh, and full of intriguing and healing flavors.
Making Indian food can seem intimidating. The sheer number of spices can put you off exploring this delicious and healthful cuisine. But it’s worth persevering. If you’re the way I am, you might need a little help discovering the ease and joy of cooking Indian style—which is as accessible as making a stir-fry, but with a few basic techniques and spices that you can find in almost any grocery store.
A Matter of Taste
According to Ruta Kahate, author of 5 Spices, 50 Dishes: Simple Indian Recipes Using Five Common Spices, it helps to start small and keep things simple. Using only five spices, you can create a symphony of flavors in Indian dishes and more. “Turmeric has a musky, earthy aroma and flavor, and there’s a huge difference when it’s missing,” she says. “The other four spices mostly complement it—cumin for its toasty, nutty flavor; coriander [the seeds of a cilantro plant] for its lovely, lemony aroma; cayenne pepper for its heat, but without ever overwhelming a dish; and mustard seed for its ability to deliver a subtle horse-radishy kick to the third eye. They are all you need to create a good foundation in cooking with spices; you can create complex flavors or very simple ones. But once you master a few techniques, you will feel comfortable with spices and be ready to move on to more-complex recipes.”
Garland is probably painfully correct when she says, “The spice repertoire of most Americans is so limited—onions, garlic, salt, pepper, and that’s about it. Our tastebuds have got to reawaken. To really enjoy our food, we have to taste something other than sweet, salty, and sour. Cooking with spices is an easy way to add another three: bitter (found in turmeric), astringent (found in coriander), and pungent (found in cumin, mustard, and cayenne pepper).”
Out of the Frying Pan
Unfortunately, I had yet to move on from my mustard gas incident. Kahate loves the seeds, and they’re integral to some of the most mouthwatering dishes—including butternut squash with green beans in coconut milk curry , which sounded so good that it motivated me to get out my pan and try again.
But first, I had to learn one essential technique: the tadka, or heating of spices in oil to bring out their flavors. Simply throwing dry spices into cooked food won’t give you the results that Kahate talks about; in fact, it can leave a dish with a dry, bitter taste. All spices, especially turmeric, must first be warmed in oil to bring out their best flavor. So I began by working with oil that was just smoking in the pan, then adding spices, and giving it my full attention—determined not to repeat the mistakes of my past.
Following Kahate’s instructions, I learned three key things about tadka. One, the cooking of the spices happens in mere seconds. Two, have a lid handy; spices pop and spatter like crazy in hot oil. And three, be prepared to start over. It’s neither unusual nor a big deal to have to try again. It isn’t an irreversible failure (though, it’s best not to let things get to mustard gas levels, either).
It took me a few tries to get my tadka just so, and when I did, it was an “Aha!” moment in my Indian cooking endeavors. An even bigger revelation was the first bite, which was simple and earthy, sweet and satisfying—the vegetables transformed by spices I’d cooked just so. What a healthy, delicious reward.
Hillari Dowdle has been an editor at Yoga Journal, Natural Health, and Cooking Light.