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It is well known that a good healthy diet can prevent certain types of illness. What is less well known is that specific foods and spices, as a result of the combined exceptional nutritional value with the bonus of special properties, can not only prevent specific medical conditions but in many cases can heal them or alleviate their symptoms. In this post i am going to cover the top 15 most commonly used herbs, spices and seeds in Indian cooking and their healing properties.
Anise – Aniseed the seeds of the anise plant and star anise the fruit have the same properties. They both contain a potent essential oil that is strongly antispasmodic and acts as a stimulant to the heart, respiratory and digestive systems. (distention and wind, dyspepsia, flatulence, nausea and vomiting) Anise is slightly diuretic and helps promote bile flow and digestion. Other benefits include migraine pains.
Asafoetida – has a very overpowering, almost unpleasant smell, which is calmed when it is fried in oil. It is often added to dhals to alleviate wind. It is made from a dried gum resin which is taken from the roots of a perennial plant native to Kashmir. The dried resin is ground to a yellowish powder which is used in small quantities in cooking in many lentil and vegetable dishes.
Cardamom – seeds are strongly aromatic and are widely used in Indian cooking to flavour curries, sweets and desserts. It is an essential ingredient in garam masala. Cardamom is the dried fruit of a plant native to India. It takes the form of a pod containing brown seeds, which can be ground to a fine powder or used whole. You can also use cracked whole pods in cooking. There are several varieties, brown and pale green which have a much finer flavour. They stimulate the appetite and aid digestion, and prevent heartburn and diarrhoea. They contain an essential oil that is an effective breath freshener.
Chilli – come in a wide range of shapes, sizes, flavours and degrees of hotness. The colour of a chilli green, yellow, red, or purple indicates the stage of maturity. The most commonly used in Indian cooking, are the small dried red chillies they can be used whole, crushed, flaked or in powered form, and fresh thin long green ones. They need not dominate food and can be used subtly, to deepen flavour. Chillies are a good source of vitamin c, and also contain capsaicin in the essential oil which is thought to be good for the heart and circulation and prevention of blood clots. Chillies are recommended for digestive problems. (Diarrhoea, dyspepsia, flatulence) They are also good for the immune system, clears airways in coughs and colds. They may relieve pain for some people and also temporarily raises calories burning rate. Excessive consumption of chillies may cause chronic inflammation of the stomach and intestines
Cinnamon – the spice used in cooking is the dried inner bark of the cinnamon tree, an evergreen native to Sri Lanka. It is one of the most important and earliest known spices and is an essential ingredient in garam masala. It is used in its stick form as well as a ground spice and its warm, sweet aroma enhances rice dishes, as well as meat dishes and desserts. It is a bactericide that improves the function of the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. It is also antispasmodic and stimulates digestion. It is also used to promote vitality, warm the body, improve the immune system and thus treat colds and influenza.
Cloves – are the small dried buds of the clove tree, which have a sweet aroma but a bitter taste. They are used to flavour rice and savoury dishes and are also used in spice mixtures, including garam masala. The essential oil form coves acts as a powerful antiseptic. They are good for intestinal infections, and travellers chew them in order to prevent both intestinal infections and hepatitis. They also have a slight anaesthetic action. Clove oil is used externally to treat infected wounds, dental pain and mouth ulcers. They are also good for the immune system and help prevent colds and influenza.
Coriander – the pungent, slightly sweet, citrus flavour of coriander seeds is used in vegetable, meat, fish and poultry dishes. The seeds come from a leafy herb bearing lacy flowers. These seeds are dried and used extensively, whole or ground, as an aromatic spice in Indian cooking. The flavour of the ground spice is not as intense as that of the whole. It is also an aromatic herb that lifts a dish both visually and in flavour, the leaves and stalks can both be used in Indian dishes. The seeds contain a greater concentration of active ingredients than the leaves and can be made into medicinal drinks.
Coriander has antibiotic properties and helps to treat a range of digestive problems. (Abdominal pain, dyspepsia, flatulence, indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome) The herb is also a good source of vitamin b and folic acid.
Cumin – the distinctive aroma of cumin seeds is used to flavour rice and curries. Cumin seeds are the fruits of a small annual herb, which grows throughout India. They are used dried and range in colour from light greenish brown to dark brown. Another variety of cumin is black cumin which is less aromatic and not as bitter in flavour. Cumin seeds can be fried in hot oil to intensify their flavour or dry roasted and then ground with other spices. They are rich in an essential oil that has sedative and carminative properties. They can help to treat poor digestion and also flatulence.
Fennel Seed – Dried fennel seeds are used throughout India not only to add a sweet, aniseed flavour to a variety of dishes, but also as a mouth freshener. They are similar in appearance to cumin seeds though greener in colour. Fennel seeds are gently tonic and diuretic. The main medicinal use of fennel seeds is for digestive problems, such as poor appetite and digestion, bloating, nausea, vomiting, flatulence and abdominal pain. They are also thought to relieve wheezing, catarrh, asthma and gout. The seeds also promote urination and the elimination of uric acid.
Garlic – is a hardy bulbous member of the liliacaea family, which also includes onions, shallots, leeks, chives and spring onions. The bulb consists of a number of cloves encased in a thin papery covering. It has an unmistakeable aroma and is eaten throughout India except by some Kashmiri Hindus and the Jain sect. In Indian cooking it is most commonly used as a pulp and fried with ginger and onion in oil as a base in many recipes, particularly meat dishes. Garlic has a long reputation as a health giving food used both to prevent and cure illness. The principal active ingredients in garlic are a volatile oil called allicin released when the cloves are crushed. Allicin is a powerful anti-coagulant and it inhibits blood clotting and helps to break down existing clots, allowing the blood to flow more freely thus reducing blood pressure. It also helps to reduce the level of cholesterol in the blood. Allicin has potent antibacterial and antifungal properties, and raw garlic is effective in relieving the symptoms of colds and respiratory infections, such as nasal congestion. It is also useful in combating digestive system infections and controlling the balance of bacteria in the gut.
Ginger – is the underground stem or rhizome of an herbaceous plant grown throughout Asia. It is one of the most widely used spices in Indian cooking. In its fresh state it is most often used as a pulp, the outer skin is removed and the fibrous flesh is either finely chopped or pulped and used to impart a pungent fresh aroma and distinct flavour to a variety of dishes. Dried ginger is also available as a ground spice which can be used to flavour drinks as well as savoury and sweet dishes. It has been prescribed for many ailments. It stimulates the appetite, has antiseptic and tonic properties and alleviates nausea, travel sickness, vomiting and particularly morning sickness. Combined in a broth with spring onions, garlic and cloves, it promotes sweating and eases cold symptoms. Ginger can be used as massage oil for rheumatism or to improve blood circulation in muscles. Ginger is also good for the immune system and can help prevent sore throats, colds and influenza.
Mustard Seeds – The mustard plant is an annual which bears bright yellow flowers. The seeds of the plant when dried are the spice. There are three types of mustard seeds, of which the brown and black are the most widely used in India. They are round in shape and sharp tasting. Mustard seeds are used to flavour a variety of dishes. Whole black mustard seeds are often thrown in hot oil or popped at the beginning of a recipe this gives them a sweet, nutty taste that enhances vegetable, pulses, fish dishes, and relishes. The white mustard seed is used as a condiment and the black seed is commonly used by herbalists. Mustard causes a sensation of heat in the stomach and stimulates the digestion, and also helps constipation.
Nutmeg – Nutmeg and mace come from the same tree, mace being the lacy outer covering of the nutmeg kernel. Nutmeg has a warm, sweet flavour and is used in small quantities in desserts, often grated from a whole nutmeg. It is also used in some garam masala mixes. Mace is similar in flavour but is not as sweet and is more often used as a ground spice. Nutmeg contains a potent essential oil that is poisonous in large doses, but beneficial in small amounts. It is a good general antiseptic for the digestive system, has analgesic properties and stimulates the brain and nervous system. Nutmeg is recommended for dab breath, poor digestive ailments. The diluted essential oil can be applied to the skin for rheumatism, bronchitis and neuralgia.
Peppercorns – Pepper is the most commonly used spice and is sometimes known as the king of spices. It is the fruit of a perennial vine which bears berries or peppercorns. The black, white, red, and green varieties all come from the same plant, the difference in colour occurs in the way they are processed. Black pepper is made by drying green peppercorns in the sun while white pepper is made when ripe berries are softened in water, hulled and then dried. Peppercorns contain a complex essential oil called piperin.
They are good for digestive problems like diarrhoea and dyspepsia and circulatory problems such as chilblains. They stimulate the heart and peripheral circulation, although excessive consumption of pepper may aggravate any inflammation of the stomach and intestines. They are also good for the immune system for colds and sore throat.
Turmeric – is the root or rhizome of a herbaceous perennial plant related to the ginger family. This bright yellow bitter tasting spice is sold ground, although the small roots are also available fresh or dried. Like ginger it needs to be peeled and ground before using. Although used mainly for colour, this spice imparts a subtle flavour, and should generally be used sparingly. Turmeric aids immunity by enhancing the health of the liver. It also mops up free radicals and so helps fight degenerative diseases. It contains a host of minerals and vitamins and is also used extensively for antibacterial, anti inflammatory, antiseptic, and antioxidant purposes.
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