I love adding spices to my cooking. Besides some of the well-hyped health benefits, they just make food more interesting. The same ingredients from one dish can be magically transformed into something completely different just based on the spice profile. It can set apart one region’s or even one person’s cooking from another. It separates, say, East coast cuisine from the West, as well as Aunt Emma’s chili from your own concoction. Spices make all the difference.
Now, truth be told, I’m more talk than action. I have over 40 spices in my cabinet, carefully labeled and arranged alphabetically, but honestly they only get touched maybe once or twice a week. Clearly I like the idea of spices, but practically speaking I am not as committed as I let on. I hope that is about to change, both for you and for me.
Recently I had the privilege of traveling to India. Besides the wild colors, bold aromas, and beautiful antiquities, the food is an attraction in its own merit. Oh the food. I wish I could transport myself back there as I write this. The food was so rich, so colorful, so flavorful, and so fragrant. It completely engaged all the senses. You got the sense that food is vitally important. It is not an afterthought but an important and well-planned part of the day. Along with that, the use of spices for creating unique flavor profiles is paramount.
Coming back after two weeks to Seattle, I realized my own diet was really quite bland. Kale salad, while healthy, doesn’t pack any punch in the flavor or the color department. Good ol’ turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread? Pretty boring all around unless you bump it up with some heavy hitting mustard and maybe some tangy arugula and heirloom tomatoes. Even still, on the whole, our food is just drab. No wonder many Indians retain much of their familiar ways of cooking when moving here, and some have even opened Indian grocers to import traditional food items (which I think we can all say we are extremely grateful for!).
Besides taste and cultural norms, there are other reasons to value spice in your life. As I alluded to earlier, there are many health benefits to including more spice in your diet.
Number one is the anti-inflammatory benefit. Many spices have specific properties that allow them to act as potent anti-oxidants. Turmeric is one of the currently most popular and studied examples. Countless research papers have shown turmeric, and its active component curcumin, to have anti-oxidant properties. Other spices that shine as anti-oxidants stars, although far less publicized, include oregano, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and mustard seed, among countless others.
Number two is that many spices act as anti-microbial agents. In fact, back in the day spices were highly valued due to the lack of refrigeration. Heavy use of spices could kill disease causing pathogens and keep food safe to eat. These properties also apply internally by killing off unwanted bacteria and viruses. A great reason to increase spice consumption during the winter!
Some spices also have other very specific health benefits, such as helping to reduce blood pressure, calming tense nerves, quieting nausea, or easing digestion. They can be used in appropriate doses therapeutically, however by including a wide variety in cooking you are ensuring your body benefits from a broad range of these health-supportive spices.
So returning from India and feeling quite depressed about my “boring” diet, I have become resolved to practice what I preach. I am no longer satisfied with a few dashes of chili powder here or a few shakes of Italian seasoning there. No, I want to re-create that depth and richness I so fully enjoyed abroad in my own cooking at home. Armed with a bagful of new spices (thank you Kerala spice shop and US customs for letting me cart all these goodies home!), I have found new resolve to cook more interesting dishes and significantly ramp up my intake of herbs and spices.
Are you on board with me? If so you might be wondering, how do we get started?
First of all, we need some ideas. And by ideas I mean recipes. I have very little experience with cooking these types of dishes, so recipes and instructions are my best friend. Believe me, I never whizz this stuff up off the top of my head. I am just not that talented in the culinary department.
What ideas do I have, you ask? Curry, curry, curry… for starters. There are so many amazing curry options, and contrary to popular belief, they do not have to be spicy. I have been making mild curries that my kids enjoy, many of which include various types of vegetables and lean meats. Often you can get protein, veg, and healthy fats all in one dish. Add a little rice or roti on the side and you have a complete meal.
Other cuisines to look into include African and Middle Eastern cooking. These also tend to rely heavily on many types of spices. Right now I am eyeing my Exotic Ethiopian Cooking cookbook sitting on the shelf beside me, trying to ready my brain for diving in one of these days. Gear yourself up with a variety of recipes, either from books, magazines, or the internet, and start to catalog the types of dishes you want to attempt.
Next we need ingredients, and by that I mean the actual spices. This is the tricky part! I have found that some spices are exceedingly hard to come by at local grocers. If you can, find ethnic markets in your area and explore. We are blessed with many international communities in and around Seattle, so I am planning some reconnaissance missions in the near future. Otherwise, search online if what you are seeking remains elusive.
Now, once you acquire the spices you need, I strongly suggest you invest in some spice jars and maybe even a label maker to get yourself organized. I squarely have this part down, thanks to Ikea and Amazon. I love to look at my neat rows of labeled, alphabetized jars. I just need to start using them!