Four Spices that Improve Your Health

Sweet, spicy cinnamon is an antioxidant and may even help treat diabetes.By Sarah Khan

Culinary and medicinal practices of ancient cultures, passed down for generations offer insight into the healing potential of foods, herbs and spices. Western research is beginning to document these claims. In years to come, perhaps our medicine cabinets will be found in the kitchen, filled with herbs and spices, which we'll judiciously employ to keep us healthy.

Cilantro and Coriander

Usually this pungent herb and the spice made from its seeds are either loved or hated by diners. You'll find it used heavily in Mexican, Mediterranean and some Asian cuisines. Though it doesn't share the subtle qualities of its cousin, this plant is actually a member of the parsley family.

Cilantro leaves and coriander seeds are rich in disease-fighting antioxidants. Research has shown cilantro is specifically rich in carotenoids. Other studies have indicated the potential of coriander oil as a natural antimicrobial compound against C. jejuni in food -- a pathogen that causes food-borne diseases worldwide.

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Cooks and healers have roasted and ground striated, husk-covered coriander seeds or steeped the leaves to make healing potions for a few thousand years. According to Ayurvedic classifications, cilantro is bitter and astringent and is considered cooling and cleansing. It can effectively help balance the three dominant constitutions (vata, pitta, kapha) and is particularly beneficial for balancing pitta and kapha. Cilantro improves digestion and helps strengthen liver function. In Chinese medicine, cilantro is classified as warming, although the Chinese cook with it to counteract the heating effects of strongly spiced food

Cinnamon

Cinnamon red hots remind many of us of childhood, when the tiny crimson morsels had an irresistible allure. Pop a handful into our mouths, and we'd experience a burst of spicy sweetness. We didn't know it then, but that bold flavor derives from a phenolic compound found in the cinnamon species called cinnamaldehyde.

Cinnamomum verum originates in Sri Lanka, but has become a widespread species and is one of the most common spices in kitchens around the world. All spices derive their distinct flavors from a mixture and concentration of volatile oils, and cinnamon species are no different. Cinnamaldehyde, the phytochemical that gives red hots their heat, predominates in both Ceylon and cassia cinnamons.

Generally, cinnamon is prescribed for loss of appetite, mild spasms of the gastrointestinal tract, bloating and flatulence. Herbalists may prescribe cinnamon powder, an infusion or decoction, extract, tincture or the essential oil. Cinnamon oil is also known for its antioxidant, anti-fungal and antibacterial properties. A recent review of more than 200 research articles on Ceylon cinnamon and cassia shows that the cinnamons have blood-sugar lowering properties.

Cardamom

Calming cardamom soothes the body. The third-most expensive spice in the world after saffron and vanilla, Elettaria cardamomum is known as "The Queen of Spices." It belongs to the ginger family -- Zingiberaceae -- like turmeric, ginger, and galangal. India's Western Ghat forests of the Malabar Coast (Kerala) are cardamom's center of origin, and its diverse varieties are centered there. British planters systematically organized plantations in India and Sri Lanka (Ceylon) more than 150 years ago.

In Ayurveda, cardamom oil, like clove oil, is used externally on toothaches. Many people in South Asia, my mother included, carry small metal pill boxes filled with cardamom pods to freshen and sweeten the breath. Seeds are crushed and steeped in hot water and sipped to help digestion and act as a carminative.

Turmeric

Turmeric, or Curcuma longa, is a rhizome native to tropical South Asia that has a striking yellow-orange color when sliced. Like ginger and its cousin galangal, turmeric belongs to the Zingerberaceae family. It's added as a coloring agent to make mustard yellow and acts as an inexpensive stand-in for saffron in yellow rice in South Asian, Latin America and Spanish cuisines. In South and Southeast Asia, where turmeric is used as medicine, it's also broadly incorporated in cooking and is a staple in many curry powders.

In Ayurveda, turmeric, or haridra in Sanskrit, is classified as bitter, pungent, astringent, dry and light and is believed to have warming qualities which help regulate stomach and appetite. In classical Ayurvedic texts, it's used fresh or dried, alone or mixed in powders, pastes, pills and tea-like decoctions. Mothers in South Asia frequently make warm turmeric in milk (haldi dhood) to relieve digestive problems, inhibit a burgeoning cold or reduce a cough and sore throat.

reported that polyphenols and particularly curcuminoids might be valuable as a complement to pharmaceutical treatment in conditions such as cancer, cirrhosis, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive lung disease, diabetes and Alzheimer's. Some research suggests that fresh turmeric is more potent than dry.

Lentil Salad with Olive Oil and Egyptian Spices (Coriander Seeds)

Clifford A. Wright's recipe has a pungent coriander flavor. It serves 6 and can be prepared in just 30 minutes.

Ingredients

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

½ teaspoon freshly ground cumin seeds

½ teaspoon freshly ground coriander seeds

¼ teaspoon freshly ground cardamom seeds

½ teaspoon ground fenugreek

1 cup dried brown lentils, picked over and rinsed well

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. In a small saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat with the garlic. As soon as the garlic begins to sizzle, remove from the burner, add the cumin, coriander, cardamom and fenugreek, stir, and set aside.

2. Place the lentils in a medium-size saucepan of lightly salted cold water and bring to a boil. Cook until al dente, about 25 minutes from the time you turned the heat on.

3. Drain lentils and toss with the garlic, olive oil and spices while still hot. Season with salt and pepper, toss, and arrange on a serving platter, drizzling the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil over the top. Serve at room temperature.

Zester Daily contributor Sarah K. Khan is founder and director of the nonprofit Tasting Cultures Foundation, which develops multimedia educational programming on food and culture.

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