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It's all in the spices

There is more to spices than flavour. Dr Anjali Mukherjee on the health benefits of some of them.

health and fitness Updated: May 08, 2007 12:57 IST
Dr Anjali Mukherjee

Good cooks will swear by their spices down to the last pinch. And food lovers will turn up their noses at dishes that don’t have that little bit of dal hini or garam masala. But the latest to join the spice bandwagon are food scientists and nutritionists who are acknowledging the fact that spices have more to them than taste and tang.

They possess medicinal qualities and micro nutrients that can make a difference to body health.

Cardamom A steaming mug of elaichi tea works wonders for the sagging spirit, especially on a dull, rainy day.

A native of southern India, Sri Lanka and Malaysia, it is an international favourite. Whether you use the seeds powdered or whole, cardamom lends a distinct flavour to milk, tea, curries, Indian sweets and desserts. It is even used for its fragrance in some cosmetics.

Health Benefits: It works as a carminative (relieves flatulence) and digestant (aids digestion). It stimulates the stomach to produce more acids, which in turn improves digestion. And of course after a meal of garlics and onions, it works as a wonderful mouth freshener!

Cloves The innocuous-looking laung is a native of India, Indonesia, Brazil, Madagascar and Philippines. These unopened flower buds are used to spice up curries. They are also used in dental products and cosmetics like soaps, perfumes and body lotions.

Health Benefits: Your grandmother was right! Clove oil is a great pain reliever, especially for toothaches. This tiny spice packs in a load of benefits. It combats nausea and when taken at tea it eases digestion problems and parasitic infections. Clove oil is also a potent antibiotic. When you have a toothache, apply a few crushed cloves to the aching tooth.

Pepper Kali mirchi, whether ground or whole, can pep up a bland meal in a jiffy! Grown extensively in India, it can be had in in salads, sprinkled over freshly cut fruits, added to soups, fruits shakes and curries.

Health Benefits: These tiny black balls are an incredible powerhouse of medicinal qualities. Pepper works as a diaphoretic (induces sweating), diuretic (prevents water retention) and carminative (fights cramps). It stimulates the taste buds, which in turn increases the production of stomach acids and improves digestion.

It also has antioxidant and anti bacterial properties. The outer layer of peppercorn helps in breaking down fat cells. So make sure that the pepper cellar is full and close at hand during meal times!

Cinnamon Dalchini is the dried inner bark of an evergreen tree native to South West India, South Asia and Srilanka. This aromatic spice is used to flavour vegetables, curries and desserts. It is also used in incense and pharmaceutical, cosmetic and health products.

Health Benefits: Research has confirmed that cinnamon is a sedative anti-convulsant (reduces the severity of fits like those in epilepsy) antibiotic, diaphoretic, diuretic and anti-ulcerative.

It is useful in treating common colds. If you ever feel you have a cold coming on, just have a cup of cinnamon and ginger tea with a dash of lime. It will warm you up and make you feel good.

Saffron Kesar, the queen of spices, doesn’t come cheap by any standards. And no surprise, considering that it takes nearly 70,000 saffron flowers to produce a mere kilo of saffron!

These delicate dried threads of the saffron flower are found in the cooler climates of northern India. A natural food colorant, it imparts a typical flavour to rice dishes, Indian sweets, vegetables, and curries.

Health Benefits: Saffron is the only spice known to contain water soluble carotene. It is an antioxidant and anti-cancerous. It also has sedative and diaphoretic effects. A number of people also believe that it is a potent aphrodisiac — that probably explains the kesar milk that is a part of the wedding night ritual.

So, stock up your spices. They add flavour, fragrance and good health to food. Follow your grandmother’s century old recipe, right down to the last spice!

(Dr Anjali Mukerjee is a nutritionist and founder of Health Total, a nutrition counselling centre. You may direct your questions to query@health-total.com).