I am a huge lover of Indian and Asian cuisines. Lately, I have made a ton of yogurt-marinated chicken roasted beneath a boiler. After beating my brain up for the week trying to come up with a great health post, I thought I would take a break from stress relief and exercise and focus on something the majority of people enjoy: eating. Here are three great spices to help boost the flavor of your foods and promote a healthy body.
Cardamom: true cardamom, Elettaria cardamomum, a perennial plant with simple erect stems that produces small, green fruit containing up to 18
polygonal seeds with flat sides, is second only to saffron in terms of price per kilogram, which often results in adulteration or substitution. Some well-known inferior, related plants include cardamoms from Siam, Nepal, and Java. The true cardamom comes from India in two main varieties–Malabar and Mysore, the latter of which contains higher levels of cineol and limonene, making it very aromatic; Ceylon; and Malaysia, where it is still grown wild. It has an airy, gentle gingery taste with a hint of pine, and is readily used in curries, desserts such as pastries, and as a fragrance for soaps, detergents, lotions and perfumes. Cardamom has long been recorded in Chinese and Indian medicines, was chewed by Egyptians as a tooth cleaner, was used as a perfume by the Greeks and Romans, was featured in Arabian Nights for its aphrodisiac qualities, and has long been considered by Indians as a cure for obesity.
Having long been taken as a digestive, cardamom’s prime uses are similar to cinnamon and ginger–as a carminative (a substance that promotes elimination of intestinal gas), digestant, and stimulant. When selecting cardamom, one can purchase the whole fruits or pods or as whole or ground seeds. It is recommended that one buys them whole to preserve the volatile oils and grind as needed. If used whole in cooking, remove them from the dish before serving. One often finds fall recipes calling for the spice and if interested in giving a boost to that morning cup of coffee or tea, add 1/8 teaspoon before brewing or steeping. Cardamom has no safety concerns associated with dietary levels of consumption.
Ginger: Zingiber officinale is a rhizome, or root, with a pale yellow interior and skin varying in color from brown to off-white. Jamaican ginger, a pale buff, is regarded as the best, along with the multi-colored Kenyan variety; those from other parts of Africa and India are considered inferior. Generally, it has a firm yet striated texture and boasts a taste that is fragrant, pungent, and hot. In Chinese medicine, dried ginger tends to be hotter energetically than fresh ginger.
It comes in a plethora of forms, all of which I have tried. Whole fresh roots can be stored in the refrigerator for up to three weeks if left unpeeled and comes in young and mature varieties, the latter of which needs peeling before use. Dried roots are sold “black” (with the root skin left on) or “white” (skin off) whole or sliced. Most of us are familiar with the buff-colored dried powder seen in the spice section, but there is also preserved, or “stem” ginger, peeled, sliced and cooked in heavy syrup before being canned together; crystallized ginger, also cooked in sugar syrup and then air dried and rolled in sugar (a personal favorite of mine); and pickled ginger, known in Japanese as gari and often found on sushi platters to refresh the palate between courses. Personally, I find this final form very sharp and need little of it when I eat sushi.
Native to southeastern Asia, India, and China, where it has been found in culinary and medicinal literature, the ancient Romans first imported ginger from China over 2000 years ago. From that time, its popularity in the West remained and although it remained relatively expensive to Europeans, explorers introduced it into the New World. It was also considered one of the spices used against plague, thus became a common article in Medieval and Renaissance trade. Among the places it is grown in today are Fiji, Australia, and the West Indies.
Historically, ginger has had a tradition of alleviating gastrointestinal distress. It is regarded as an excellent carminative and intestinal spasmolytic (a substance that relaxes and smooths the intestinal tract), an antioxidant and inhibitor of inflammatory compounds, and direct anti-inflammatory effects. Clinical studies report that ginger may help prevent motion sickness, especially sea sickness, and one study showed that it may be superior to the drug, Dramamine, commonly used to treat motion sickness. It has also been used to treat nausea and vomiting associated with pregnancy. As an anti-inflammatory, ginger contains compounds known as gingerols, substances believed to explain why many people with osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis experience pain reductions and improvement in mobility when regularly consuming the spice. Gingerols inhibit the formation of inflammatory cytokines, chemical messengers of the immune system. One preliminary clinical study reported that all patients noted substantial improvements in pain relief, joint mobility, decreased swelling, and morning stiffness; a larger follow-up study reported that 75% of arthritis sufferers and 100% of those suffering from muscular discomfort experienced pain and swelling relief. Since ginger contains high levels of active substances, the dosages do not have to be high in order to produce benefits and, although most studies have used powdered ginger root, fresh root is believed to yield better results due to its active enzymes. Ginger contains moderate amounts of oxalate, therefore individuals with a history of oxalate-containing kidney stones should consult their physician for the best recommendations and avoid its overconsumption.
Turmeric: a member of the ginger family, Curcuma longa rhizome has been extensively cultivated in India, China, Indonesia, and other tropical countries since approximately 3000 B.C. It is cured (boiled, cleaned, and sun-dried), polished, and ground into a powder that tastes peppery, warm, and bitter, while its fragrance is mild and slightly reminiscent of orange and ginger. “India’s saffron” is deep yellow-orange in color and the major ingredient in curries and a coloring agent in prepared mustard. Other uses for it include Hindu religious rituals, a dying agent, and a venerated constituent in Ayurveda. Although introduced by Arab merchants to Europeans in the 13th Century, it has only recently begun enjoying widespread popularity.
A key component to both Chinese and Indian medicinal systems, turmeric is an anti-inflammatory agent and treats numerous conditions including flatulence,
jaundice, menstrual difficulties, bloody urine, hemorrhage, toothache, bruises, chest pain, and colic. Poultices made from turmeric are often applied locally to relieve inflammation and pain. Its yellow pigment, curcumin, seems to have demonstrated in scientific studies its significant anti-inflammatory benefits. Unlike potent drugs like hydrocortisone and pheylbutazone and over-the-counter agents such as ibuprofen, curcumin has no toxicity concerns while still competitively alleviating inflammation. Clinical studies have alsoshown that curcumin exerts powerful antioxidant effects, enabling it to protect healthy cells from free radicals that damage DNA and lead to cancer, significantly in areas such as the colon, where cell turnover is quite rapid; studies involving animals have shown that it inhibits colorectal cancers more effectively in all stages than aspirin.
Furthermore, it helps destroy mutated cancer cells and prevents their spread through the body, and stops tumor growth by inhibiting epidermal growth factors (EGF) receptor sites, inhibiting angiogenesis (fibroblast growth factor is a protein that promotes the formation of new blood vessels to feed growing tumors; curcumin inhibits its production), inhibits nuclear factor kappa beta (NF-kb; protein that many cancers produce to block signals commanding them to stop proliferating), increases the expression of the nuclear p53 protein (promotes apoptosis or “cell suicide”), inhibits growth-promoting enzymes. As an antioxidant it also inhibits cancer-causing nitrosamines, enhances the production of cancer-fighting compounds, promotes proper liver detoxification of cancer-causing compounds, and prevents the overproduction of cyclooxygenase 2 (COX-2), an enzyme that may contribute to tumor development. Experimental studies have found that curcumin fights tumors arising from prostate, breast, skin, colon, stomach, and liver cancers.
Additionally, turmeric may help prevent heart disease and degenerative neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and multiple sclerosis. It not only helps lower cholesterol levels but also prevents the oxidation of cholesterol, the culprit for damaged blood vessels and plaque build up that leads to heart attack or stroke. As a brain-protective agent, studies have shown very low levels of neurological disease in elderly Indian populations where diets were high in turmeric consumption.Overall, turmeric is safe and well tolerated, even in high doses.
Fresh turmeric can be kept in the refrigerator for up to a month or, sliced and sealed in an air-tight container, three months. If one buys the more ubiquitous dry powder, make sure that it is stored in a tightly sealed container in a cool, dark, dry place. It can be kept for up to a year. If it gets onto clothing, wash quickly with plenty of soap and water to avoid permanent staining.
As a side note: I just realized that all three spices are from the ginger family. So there you have it, folks. Eat more ginger. It comes in many more forms than you might think!
*Information comes from The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods by Michael Murray, N.D., and Joseph Pizzorno, N.D. with Lara Pizzorno, M.A., L.M.T., Atria Books, New York, NY, 2005; p. 470-471, 484-488, 521-524.