We all know that adding spices to a bland, colorless dish can transform it into a delicious culinary treat. But did you know that those very same spices are also providing health benefits? Other cultures have been using spices for color, aroma, flavor and healing for centuries. Many of the hundreds of spices out there have medicinal properties. Fortunately there are a few standouts, some of which are already in your spice rack. For the purpose of simplicity we’re going to focus on the big 5: Turmeric, Cardamom, Ginger Cinnamon and Fennel. Each one supports your well-being and is versatile enough to be used in savory entrees, sweet desserts, soups or beverages. They are also affordable and easily sourced.
Native to India, and a member of the ginger family, turmeric is a bright yellow spice that is mildly aromatic with a slightly peppery and subtle ginger taste. It is a popular culinary spice with an impressive list of health benefits. The plant root contains curcumin - a powerful antioxidant with effective anti-inflammatory properties. Studies suggest that Turmeric can be effective for high cholesterol, osteoarthritis and digestive disorders. In traditional Ayurvedic medicine, it is used to help treat skin, upper respiratory tract and digestive system ailments.
Add freshly grated or powdered turmeric to any dish. It pairs well with chicken, fish, lentil and rice dishes. It can also be added to vinaigrettes, soups and popular health drinks such as golden milk.
Cardamom, also in the ginger family, is an earthy spice that grows in pods. Black and green pods are the most commonly harvested types of cardamom seeds. The green seeds have a slightly sweet and citrus flavor that work well in both sweet and savory dishes. The black seeds have a smoky, menthol flavor that best suited to savory dishes.
Cardamom has many helpful and varied health benefits. It activates digestive enzymes that appear to help intestinal spasms, gas, bloating and constipation, and it helps fight infections by inhibiting the growth of bacteria and viruses. In some cultures, it is common to chew on pods to help freshen breath.
Cardamom is a versatile spice used in many different world cuisines. It is featured in Indian curries and beverages like chai, and a key component in Nordic pickled dishes and baked goods. It is also the central flavor and aroma of Middle Eastern meat dishes, desserts and coffee.
A tropical plant native to East Asia, India and China, ginger root is one of the most widely used spices in the world. Used fresh or in powdered form, ginger is characterized as a hot spice with a zesty flavor. It has been used for centuries to treat nausea, flatulence, indigestion and diarrhea. There is also some evidence that ginger tea is thought to boost immunity, fight respiratory problems, improve blood circulation, and relieve menstrual discomfort.
Ginger is widely used in Asian dishes. It enhances the flavor of chicken, vegetables, soups, baked goods and even ice cream.
This popular and delicious spice is sourced from tree bark native to parts of Asia and Sri Lanka. Loaded with antioxidants, cinnamon helps protect the body from oxidative damage and has anti-inflammatory properties that help fight infection. Research suggests it may support healthy heart function by stabilizing blood sugar. Cinnamon is also associated with reduced cholesterol, triglyceride and blood pressure levels.
Cinnamon punches up sweetings in pastries, pies and puddings, and is often sprinkled on warm beverages. It is also a key ingredient in curries, tagine, biryani and various types of the mixed rice dishes.
A member of the parsley family, the fennel plant has the distinction of being used as a vegetable, herb and spice. The bulb doubles as a vegetable in many dishes, the feathery are commonly used as fresh herbs, and the dried seeds can be found in the spice aisles (and in some teas). The seeds have a sweet, anise flavor similar to licorice and are rich in minerals and fiber.
Medicinally, fennel seeds may help relieve constipation, heartburn, intestinal gas and bloating. Studies suggest that it may also reduce symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome and colic.
Many cultures use fennel seeds in both savory and sweet dishes and brewed teas. In Mediterranean cuisines fennel seeds are commonly added to pasta sauces, sausages, fish dishes and cookies. Indian recipes call for fennel seeds in curries, vegetable dishes and bread. It can also be chewed after a meal to freshen the breath.