Do you love the woody intensity of cinnamon? Or swear by the immunity-boosting effects of turmeric? Spices are integral to the Indian family kitchen and bestow a host of aromatic, healthful benefits.
By Ashwin Dewan
Sudha Krishnamoorthy has a prized possession — her intricate spice box, which she carries with her, wherever she goes. Sudha believes that traditional Indian spices can turn any bland and boring dish into an aromatic, flavourful masterpiece. And, she is not alone. There are numerous culinary enthusiasts who swear by the magic of spices to enliven the food they serve their families. Many parents also believe in the power of spices to build their children's immunity and promote overall good health.
In any Indian kitchen, the spice box occupies pride of place. A container with several small compartments, each for a particular spice, the spice box can elevate any dish from an everyday food to the simply sumptuous. In fact, the richness and range of Indian cuisine can be directly attributed to the spices used in each and every dish. And, just like Krishnamoorthy, most Indians find it well nigh impossible to imagine food prepared without our treasured spices and spice mixes!
From turmeric to coriander, pepper to cardamom, cinnamon to cumin ... there are a range of spices found in every Indian kitchen. Let's look at some of them.
1. Cumin (Jeera):
A popular spice used in cooking, cumin is known for its distinctive warm and earthy flavour. Since it has a strong aroma and taste, cumin is usually used in small quantities. It comes from the cuminum cyminum plant and is used widely across the world. It is an essential ingredient in most curry powders. An excellent source of iron, calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, amino acids, and dietary fibre, cumin has several other health benefits as well. Consuming cumin on a regular basis can aid weight loss, lower cholesterol, reduce stress, regulate digestion, etc.
2. Cinnamon (Dalchini):
Although cinnamon is a prime ingredient in numerous curries and rice dishes like pulao, it is also used in desserts like kheer and baked items. A healthy, flavourful spice, it is, again, used sparingly. The characteristic woody, intense flavour is attributed to cinnamaldehyde — primarily responsible for its many healing benefits. Cinnamon is anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, regulates blood sugar and protects against fungal infections.
3. Turmeric (Haldi):
Do you know that turmeric derived its name from the Latin terramerita? It means meritorious earth, which basically refers to the colour of this spice. Turmeric or haldi, as it is better known, is one of the most common spices available and used almost in every dish in Indian cuisine. Turmeric is also our go-to spice for its many medicinal properties — it is an antioxidant and has antiviral, antibacterial, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory uses too. Turmeric also acts as a natural painkiller and speeds up the healing of internal wounds.
4. Black Pepper (Kali Mirch):
The next time you experience a fiery explosion of taste while savouring a steaming bowl of soup, the reason could well be pepper. That's one reason why it is called the ‘King of Spices’. While it is native to South India, it is grown in other tropical countries as well. Its unique flavour can spice up any dish and it is a vital ingredient in several Ayurvedic formulations. Pepper is used to stimulate digestion, relieve cold, enable weight loss, improve the skin, etc.
5. Nutmeg (Jaiphal):
This exotic spice is loaded with essential nutrients that are beneficial for health and beauty. This spice has a characteristic pungent fragrance and a warm, slightly sweet taste. Nutmeg is used to flavour curries as well as baked goods, desserts and confections. It is believed to have pain-relieving properties and soothes indigestion. It is extremely moisturising, heals scars and is also used in skin care.
6. Coriander (Dhania):
Native to the Middle East and Southern Europe, coriander is used mostly in curry powders, stews and soups. Also known as dhania, coriander is a herb that is used extensively as a condiment. All parts of the coriander plant are edible and the seeds are a must in Indian cooking. It is known for its distinctive, tangy aroma. Coriander also has many health benefits, which include: treating skin inflammation, high cholesterol levels, indigestion, regulating blood pressure, etc.
7. Clove (Laung):
Native to the Moluccas islands in Indonesia, clove is used in several dishes across cuisines. A versatile spice, it can be used to season roast meat, add flavour to hot beverages like tea, and impart a tinge of savoury spiciness to cakes. Its health benefits include improving digestion, fighting bacteria, fighting inflammation, enhancing the immune system, etc.
8. Cardamom (Elaichi):
This wonderful and intensely aromatic spice is also used in traditional medicine across India. Native to our country, it is regarded as the ‘Queen of Spices’ and one of the most expensive, next to saffron and vanilla. Cardamom can be added to desserts like kheer or meat dishes like biryani. Cardamom cures cough and cold, aids digestion, prevents bad breath and lowers high blood pressure.
9. Asafoetida (Hing):
Apart from its remedial properties like correcting digestive disorders, soothing stomach ache, and respiratory problems like asthma, asafoetida is primarily used as a flavour-enhancer in Indian cuisine. As it has a pungent taste, it is added mainly at the tempering or seasoning or tadka stage. It also has several interesting names such as devil's dung, stinking gum and food of the gods.
10. Carom seeds (Ajwain):
Considered a member of the parsley family, carom seed or ajwain as it is known throughout India, is used in a wide variety of dishes. With a slightly bitter and strong flavour, it is added to several dishes. Some Indian mothers even dry roast the seeds, in order to enhance and elevate the taste of the dish. Ajwain provides relief from acidity, is used to treat the common cold, cleanses the skin and can be even used as a mosquito repellent.
11. Fennel seeds (Saunf):
After a meal at a restaurant, the waiter usually presents the bill with a side helping of saunf. Do you know why? Apart from its culinary uses, saunf is considered a breath freshener and aids digestion. Fennel seeds are used in both sweet and savoury foods. Often, it is ground into spice mixtures and added to curries, pickles, soup, breads, etc.
12. Bay leaf (Tejpatta):
This spice has a sharp, bitter taste and hence cannot be consumed directly. It is instead used to impart flavour to a variety of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes like pulao, biryani, soups, etc. In fact, bay leaf is often roasted and ground, and then, added to garam masala. Bay leaf is a good source of minerals and vitamin A; aids digestion, is good for the heart and may help relieve stress too.
13. Star Anise (Chakra Phool):
Is a staple of Indian cuisine. With its sweet, spicy flavour and fragrance, this star-shaped spice enhances many Indian dishes like biryani, curries and seafood preparations. It is often an ingredient in spice mixes and powders. Star anise has many health benefits too. It is rich in antioxidants, is used to treat colds, improves digestion, and alleviates cramps.
14. Nigella (Kalonji):
This spice derives its name from the Latin term nigellus, which means black. Known across India as kalonji, nigella seeds are slightly bitter and are roasted or fried before being added to dishes. The seeds are sometimes sprinkled on to Indian breads like naan before baking. It is essential to certain meat preparations like lamb korma. Kalonji is loaded with antioxidants, is said to lower cholesterol, and may prevent stomach ulcers.
15. Fenugreek (Methi):
Bittersweet and strongly flavoured, fenugreek or methi as it is more popularly known in India, is used in dishes like dal. It is also an ingredient in spice blends. Methi has a host of health benefits. It is said to promote milk flow in lactating women, is useful in treating digestive, respiratory and other health problems. Methi seeds are also considered beneficial for skin and hair.
16. Saffron (Kesar):
Saffron is considered the most expensive spice in the world. It is often used in Indian dishes like biriyani and kheer. Although saffron is used primarily in seasoning and colouring foods, its benefits are varied. It is said to boost memory and believed to play a part in preventing cancer.
17. Poppy seed (Khus Khus):
Poppy seed is a popular ingredient in Indian cuisine. Slightly nutty in taste but not bitter, it is either dry-roasted or fried and sprinkled or added to breads, sweet and savoury dishes. The seeds are obtained from the pods of the poppy plant. Poppy seed is a good source of B-complex vitamins and has antioxidant properties.
18. Curry leaves (Kadi Patta):
Curry leaf is integral to Indian cooking. It has a subtle flavour and imparts a mild fragrance. In most cases, curry leaves are fried in oil to add depth and taste while seasoning a dish. Curry leaf is said to aid weight loss, treat diarrhoea and, relieve morning sickness. It is also considered beneficial for improving eyesight, reducing stress, etc.
19. Sesame seeds (Til):
It comes in black, white and brown colours. Til adds a nuttiness to dishes. Sesame seeds are also sometimes added raw or roasted, for a dose of crunch and flavour. Sesame seeds are loaded with nutrients and have many health benefits — lower blood pressure, reduce hypertension, aid in preventing diabetes and cancer.
20. Mango powder (Amchur):
As the name suggests, this is dried mango powder. Amchur is often added to curries, chutneys and soups. It is the perfect balance of sweet and sour and has a fruity flavour. It is also used as a substitute for lemon in dishes. It is rich in iron, combats acidity, ensures timely bowel movements and, is said to aid weight loss.
21. Mace (Javitri):
Mace is not used in everyday cooking but is known for its characteristic taste and aroma. It is normally used at the beginning of the cooking so that its full-bodied flavour permeates the dish. This strongly aromatic spice is said to keep constipation at bay. It also helps in preventing gastroenteritis.
22. Black cardamom (Badi Elaichi):
The next time you savour a plate of pulao and marvel at the sumptuous taste, think of black cardamom. Often used in rice and dal preparations, black cardamom or badi elaichi has a robust, rich aroma, and a smoky flavour. Health benefits include relief from gas, indigestion and flatulence.
Every Indian mother has used most of the above-mentioned spices in her cooking. Not only do spices add amazing richness and depth to dishes, each has fantastic health benefits too. So, the next time you compliment your mother on her incredible culinary skills, remember that spices too played an integral part in the process!
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