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Indian cuisine gets its bold, complex flavors from an array of spices, many of which are linked to powerful health benefits. Discover which five belong in your cabinet, plus sample four delicious recipes that will help you enjoy them often.
There’s so much about Indian food that makes it crave-worthy—the sweet fragrance of basmati rice, the creaminess of curries. But above all, it’s the spices. It’s common to find almost a dozen in just one dish, seemingly custom-blended to please your taste buds. In fact, that may not be far from the truth: We may be genetically programmed to love the spices in Indian (and other) dishes because they contain health-promoting compounds like cancer-fighting curcumin in turmeric and heart-protective capsaicin in chili powder, according to an article in the European Molecular Biology Organization’s journal EMBO Reports. Researchers speculate that when our ancestors were sorting safe from poisonous foods, they figured out spices were A-OK; and that spice-lovers were subsequently healthier, lived longer, and had more offspring who also loved spices.
To help you get your flavor fix and support good health, we homed in on five spices common to Indian dishes that are generating excitement among scientists worldwide. Learn each one’s unique healing properties, the ideal amount to consume daily, and a few basic ideas for incorporating it into your repertoire. Then put them on your plate with simple, delicious recipes from Monisha Bharadwaj, author of The Indian Cooking Course.
Native to China but now grown all over the world, this mouth-tingling root is both sweet and peppery, and a major flavoring in Asian cuisines.
Ginger has long been used in traditional Chinese, Ayurvedic (Indian), and Unani Tibb (ancient Greek, Persian, and Arab) medicine to treat a long list of ailments. Of these, the one with the best backing by modern science is the prevention and treatment of nausea brought on by pregnancy or chemotherapy. Ginger may help food pass more quickly through your GI tract, relieving mild constipation or indigestion, and it may also offer relief from menstrual cramps, according to studies. Plus, test-tube experiments found that the compounds that give ginger its distinctive sharp taste and odor, such as gingerols and shogaols, help kill and prevent the spread of cancer cells.
About 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon dried ginger a day, taken in 1/8 teaspoon doses, may help quell nausea, aid digestion, and prevent constipation. Or you can ingest 1 to 2 teaspoons fresh-grated ginger per day, raw or boiled in tea.
Combined with garlic as an aromatic recipe staple, or as a healing tea:
• Chicken or fish curries
• Fresh herb chutneys
• Spice rubs
Dried and ground, turmeric has been spicing up food in Asia for at least 2,5oo years. India is a major exporter.
A staple of Indian and Chinese medicine systems, turmeric is also the latest darling of nutrition researchers, mainly because of curcumin, the compound that imparts the spice’s yellow color. You name the health concern—including diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and possibly Alzheimer’s—and it seems like curcumin helps prevent or treat it. “In addition to curcumin, turmeric has more than a hundred other active components, which probably act synergistically to benefit your health,” explains Sahdeo Prasad, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Experimental Therapeutics, MD Anderson Cancer Center, in Houston, Texas.
This powerful synergy may explain turmeric’s impressive health creds: It may help heal peptic ulcers, reduce symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and zap some of the carcinogens found in cigarettes. Another article in the Indian Journal of Dental Research suggests making a paste—1 tsp turmeric, 1/2 tsp salt, and 1/2 tsp mustard oil—and rubbing it on your gums twice daily to treat gingivitis (inflammation of the gums) and periodontitis (gums receding and forming infected pockets).
About 1/2 teaspoon per day is enough, although more might be needed for certain medical conditions, says Prasad. Curcumin is fat soluble, so cook turmeric with some oil or coconut milk to enhance absorption. Combining it with black or white pepper also improves bioavailability.
In a range of savory recipes thanks to its relatively mild taste:
• Beans and chickpea dishes
• Rice dishes
• Red or yellow curries
• Vegetable stir-fries
See also Q+A: How Can Turmeric Help Me Heal?
Cloves are the flower bud of the clove tree, dried and sold whole or ground. Native to Indonesia, cloves are also cultivated in India and other Asian countries, as well as Tanzania and Brazil. The infamous East India Company introduced cloves to India in 18oo.
Cloves ranked first in a French study of the 1oo foods highest in polyphenols, a large group of antioxidant compounds found in plants. To put this in perspective, a mere half-teaspoon of ground cloves contains as many antioxidants as a half-cup of blueberries—often touted as a top antioxidant-rich superfood. So far, research on cloves and its polyphenols has been mainly conducted in test tubes or on lab animals. Even so, early results look promising. For example, cloves are a great source of the antioxidant eugenol, which has been shown to suppress the spread of melanoma. They’re also rich in gallic acid, found to boost memory and tamp down brain inflammation that leads to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Exact levels aren’t yet known, but a dash goes a long way—the menthol-like flavor can take over quickly and burn your mouth if you overdo it!
Combined with other spices to lend rich flavor to such foods as:
• Coconut-based curries
• Fruit-poaching liquid
• Hot herbal tea
• Rice biryanis
4. Chili Powder
People in what is today called Mexico were eating hot peppers as far back as 8,ooo years ago. It wasn’t until the 15th century, when Christopher Columbus and crew “discovered” the peppers, that they were introduced to Europe. It’s believed that Portuguese traders then brought them to India, where they quickly became a beloved staple. Though hot peppers are grown all over the world, India is now a major producer.
Hot peppers that are dried and sold whole or ground into chili powder get their heat from healing compounds called capsaicinoids, the most abundant and well-researched being capsaicin. The hotter the pepper, the more capsaicin it contains, says Krishnapura Srinivasan, PhD, chief scientist at the Central Food Technological Research Institute in Mysore, India. Capsaicin has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory powers and protects you on many fronts. For example, it can lower cholesterol, which reduces your risk of heart disease and of cholesterol-related gallstones. (Srinivasan notes that Indians, who eat a lot of chili peppers, have a lower risk of gallstones compared to other cultures.) The spice might also help you maintain a healthy weight by delivering feelings of satiation and a temporary bump in metabolic rate: People took in 74 fewer calories after eating spicy meals or taking a capsaicin supplement with their food, compared to when they ate blander fare or took a placebo, according to a review in the journal Appetite. While this may not sound like much, over a few meals it adds up.
And chili powder may help you get more out of foods: “It enhances the absorption of vitamins by enlarging villi—tiny hairlike structures in the intestine that transport nutrients into the bloodstream,” Srinivasan explains.
It’s hard to know exactly—animal studies used 5 to 1o times the amounts eaten in hot-pepper-loving parts of India. Srinivasan suggests 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoons a day spread out over several meals; this equals about 2 to 4 dried hot peppers, half the average intake of Indians.
To add heat to savory foods like:
• Asian soups
• Grilled meats
• Tomato-based curries
Made from the inner bark of a cinnamon tree, the spice version of cinnamon is cut, dried, and sold as sticks or ground powder. Most of the cinnamon sold in the United States is “cassia,” from trees grown in China, Burma, Vietnam, and Indonesia. While it’s fine in moderation, regularly eating large amounts (about 1/2 teaspoon or more) can possibly cause liver damage and other ill effects thanks to a naturally occurring toxin called coumarin. Another variety of cinnamon tree, indigenous to Sri Lanka and Southern India, produces “Ceylon” or “true” cinnamon, which has very low levels of the toxin and is found online or in natural grocers.
The research on cinnamon’s ability to lower blood sugar has been mixed, but a recent review by Western University of Health Sciences, in California, gives it the thumbs up. It showed that people with type 2 diabetes who eat about 1/4 to 2 teaspoons daily can substantially drop their blood sugar—by 25 mg/dL. And if you have pre-diabetes or even normal blood sugar, cinnamon may blunt the rise in blood sugar that results from downing a sugary beverage, according to a few studies.
In various studies, about 1/4 to 2 teaspoons daily for 4 to 18 weeks were enough to significantly lower blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes. This data is based on studies using cinnamon capsules, but you could also try adding this amount directly to your food.
In garam masala (a classic Indian spice blend) or in sweet or aromatic foods, including:
• Baked goods like cookies and fruit breads
• Beef curries
• Masala chai
• Rice pudding or ice cream
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About Our Experts
Janis Jibrin is a writer and registered dietitian based in Washington, DC, as well as an adjunct professor of nutrition at American University. Monisha Bharadwaj, author of The Indian Cooking Course, runs an Indian cooking school in London called Cooking with Monisha.