Why spice is nice

Last Updated 09 July 2010, 10:17 IST

Although spices and India are synonymous, most spices did not originate here. They were brought by early travellers and traders. Cumin is believed to have originated in Egypt and Syria. In the Moluccas island of Indonesia (where clove is believed to have originated), a clove tree was planted when a child was born because cloves were very special and very expensive.

Spice is defined in the Webster’s dictionary as any vegetable product that is used to season or flavour food. It is either part of a flower, root, bark, seed, leaf or fruit.

Spices have three roles to play — they enhance the taste of food, they have medicinal value and they act as preservatives when used in certain foods.

Soothing immunity boosters

Coriander seeds were introduced to India by Persian traders. Till then, only coriander leaves were used. Today, the seeds are an integral part of our cuisine. Coriander seeds help in digestion, prevent urinary tract infections, lower blood sugar and bad cholesterol, protect against salmonella infection, and prevent nausea.

Cumin’s strong aroma and distinct taste makes it a special spice. Cumin also has remarkable digestive properties. When boiled in water, the liquid concentrate relieves abdominal pains.

Fenugreek’s history dates back to the time when Egyptians used its paste for embalming. Today, it is an indispensable ingredient in many Indian dishes. Fenugreek is used to counter colic problems. It is also mixed into homemade sweets and served to nursing mothers.

Although mustard’s history dates back to the Stone Age, a large amount of these seeds were found in the tomb of King Tut of Egypt. Mustard in India is used as an oil seed and a spice. A dish without seasoning with mustard seeds is unthinkable in South Indian cuisine. The oil extracted from mustard is used for cooking in Eastern India. The oil is also used in massages and is believed to cure body ache. However, whole mustard seeds don’t have any nutritional value. Mustard seeds ground to fine paste can be applied externally to treat ring worm.

Hot and sweet

Cardamom had its origins in India. It was used for various medicinal purposes in ancient India. It is the second most expensive spice after saffron. Cardamom is known as the ‘Queen of Spices’ and is widely used for its aroma in Indian sweets. It is chewed by many as it sweetens breath and it also helps digestion.

Pepper is one of the oldest spices that was traded in Asia and Europe. It is believed to have originated in the Western Ghats of India. Pepper not only helps in digestion but also helps in combating cold when boiled with milk and turmeric. Pepper boiled along with tulsi (basil) cures a cold and reduces phlegm.

Red chillies are synonymous with Indian dishes but surprisingly they did not originate here. They were brought by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Chillies are believed to lower blood pressure. Green chillies are a good source of Vitamin C. They help in digestion by increasing salivation.

Colour me up!

Turmeric is a native of India and has been in use since 600 BC. It is used as a colouring agent, a natural blood purifier and as a natural cosmetic. Turmeric mixed with warm water is used as an expectorant.

Aromatic and refreshing

Cinnamon or dalchini or darchini is a derivative from the Arabian word Dar-al-chini that means ‘Wood of China’. It is believed the Egyptians knew of this spice 2,000 years before Christ. Cinnamon is believed to help regulate blood sugar and prevent blood clotting. It is used in tea and hot chocolate to add a dash of flavour. Cinnamon is used as a natural preservative in some foods.

Golden spice

Saffron is called the ‘Golden spice’. It is the most expensive of spices. It is used for its delicate aroma and taste. It is the dried stigma of the flower. It is immersed in water before cooking. Tea made with saffron is often given to people suffering from fever. Saffron is used in flavouring rice dishes, sweets, beverages and meats.

Cloves are dried, unopened flower buds. Cloves are used in garam masala and even tea. The name ‘clove’ comes from the French word ‘clou’ meaning nail. The clove’s anaesthetic property comes in very handy when dealing with tooth ache.

Clove in tea eases cough and clove oil is used widely for a variety of medicinal reasons.

(Published 09 July 2010, 10:06 IST)

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