For thousands of years before the development of modern medicine, spices were valued for their ability to help people resist disease and maintain good health, although their essential nutrients, antioxidants and health-enhancing phytochemicals had yet to be isolated and identified.
Nonetheless, the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and India all prescribed spices in a wide range of medicines to treat infections and infestations, relieve pain, cleanse wounds, ease digestion, aid sleep and purify the air.
Spices enhance the five essential tastes: sweet, salt, sour, bitter and hot. They also preserve freshness, add colour and aid digestion. The key to effective cooking with spices is remembering that they should always enhance the flavours and qualities of the other ingredients, not overpower them. No one flavour should upset the balance of a dish as an entire taste experience.
Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum)
•One of the oldest known aromatic spices, first used in China at around 2800 BC. True cinnamon quills are of the inner bark of a small, bushy evergreen tree native to South India and Sri Lanka, but other Cinnamomum species are used in Europe and elsewhere.
• Imparts a rich flavour to stir-fries, stews and soups, rice and lentil dishes, breads, chocolate, cakes and other desserts, drinks and spice mixtures; adds a sweet, comforting flavour to fruit salads and smoothies.
•Best cinnamon quills are smooth, light brown and paper-thin. Choose whole sticks because, once ground, they soon lose their sweet, warming aroma. Store in an airtight jar away from direct sunlight.
Contains essential oil, tannins, coumarin, calcium, iron and vitamin K. A warming spice with sedative, antispasmodic, antibacterial and antifungal properties. Useful for treating digestive problems, and relieving nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and stomach cramps. Also used traditionally as a remedy for colds, flu, arthritis and high blood pressure. Evidence confirms that cinnamon can lower blood pressure and increase peripheral blood flow.1 Its antibacterial and antifungal properties also supported by research; lab studies show effectiveness against oral thrush.2
Taken daily over time, can improve insulin sensitivity, and reduce high blood sugar and high cholesterol.3 Can reduce glucose absorption by inhibiting pancreatic secretions and stimulate glucose uptake by cells by promoting insulin release and activity.4 Also has immune-boosting, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and may be effective in cancer prevention.5
• Use with caution during pregnancy, in cases of stomach ulcers and in those taking blood thinners
• Large doses may cause allergic skin reactions.
Cumin (Cuminum cyminum)
•Also part of the parsley family, not to be confused with curcumin (turmeric) or black cumin
• Buy seeds whole and store in an airtight container out of direct sunlight. Toast just before use to bring out full flavour. Once cool, grind as required.
A traditional Indian remedy for digestive problems; known to relieve cramps, stimulate urine flow and increase lactation. The seeds can also help lower high blood sugar and blood fats, and may slow the development of diabetes complications like cataracts,8 and are also antimicrobial, antidiabetic, antiepileptic, anticancer and antioxidant with immune-regulating activities; the essential oil is good
for asthma and bronchitis, and skin fungal infections and boils.9
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum)
• Culinary and medicinal attributes have been documented for more than 3,000 years
• Belongs to the parsley family (Apiaceae), also known as 'cilantro', 'dhania', 'Arabian parsley' or 'Chinese parsley'
• Seeds are dried ripe fruits resembling pale golden peppercorns, with milder, sweeter, almost woody scent and warming, soft flavour. Contains essential oils, plus camphor, linalol, geraniol, terpenes, flavonoids, coumarins, phenolic acids, sterols and omega essential oils
• All parts of the plant can be used as food and medicine.
BUYING AND STORING
Buy whole coriander seeds instead of ready-ground powder; store in an airtight container away from sunlight. Grind only as required; toast first to bring out full flavour. Leaves of coriander best used fresh, although can be bought freeze-dried.
Used since ancient times to treat indigestion, wind, colic and cramps, and stimulate the appetite. Recently recommended for management of type 2 diabetes and as a diuretic. May also reduce heavy-metal uptake from diet, and may even help remove them from the body.6
Also thought to reduce the effect of ulcer-causing Helicobacter pylori infection; effective against both gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria, including MRSA, E. coli and Salmonella.7
• Coriander seeds eaten in excess can have a narcotic effect.
Preparation and cooking time: 50 minutes
2 Tbsp olive oil
4 shallots, sliced
1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
A pinch saffron strands
½ tsp cayenne pepper
4 garlic cloves, crushed
400 g/14 oz chicken breast fillet (or seitan or tofu), cut into bite-size pieces
500 g/1 lb 2 oz pumpkin, peeled, deseeded, cubed
500 g/1 lb 2 oz sweet potato, peeled, cubed
400 g/14 oz canned chickpeas, drained, rinsed
1 Tbsp tomato purée/paste
400 mL/14 fl oz/1½ cups red wine
500 mL/17 fl oz/2 cups vegetable stock
1 handful dried apricots
Freshly ground black pepper
1) Heat oil in a flameproof casserole dish or tagine. Add shallots and sauté gently for 2 minutes.
2) Stir in spices and garlic, then sizzle for 30 seconds before adding chicken (or seitan or tofu), pumpkin, sweet potato and chickpeas.
3) Stir-fry for 3 minutes, then add tomato purée/paste, red wine, stock and apricots.
4) Season with salt and pepper and bring to a boil, then turn heat down, cover and leave to simmer gently for 30 minutes, or until the chicken (or seitan or tofu) is cooked through, the vegetables are soft and the sauce has caramelized.
Heat brings out the full flavour and aroma of most spice seeds, so they are often toasted on their own in a hot pan before any oil or other ingredients are added. But be vigilant, as it's all too easy to burn them. Other spices release their flavour when dissolved in hot water, while some are best introduced just before serving to ensure perfect seasoning. Salt and pepper are often added this way, as are jaggery (unrefined cane or palm sugar) and wasabi.