Spices: Wonder-foods for Flavor and Health!

Maharishi Ayurveda Churnas and Ghee

The "spice-box" is an intrinsic part of an Indian kitchen. Other cultures around the world have their favorite spices and herbs as well. The exotic colors and heady aromas of spices can elevate an ordinary dish into a sublime feast for the senses. What's more, most spices also come with therapeutic properties, so every meal that includes spices can become an experience in enhancing health and well-being.

Ayurveda has been singing the praises of spices as "wonder-foods" for thousands of years. Spices are ingredients in many synergistic ayurvedic herbal formulations, and an ayurvedic expert, when giving you advice, is as likely to recommend specific spices to include in your diet as to suggest herbal supplements for you to take. Including all six tastes — sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent — at every main meal is a basic tenet of ayurvedic dietary wisdom, and spices are a convenient, flavorful way of accomplishing this.

Some general tips for cooking with spices

  • Most spices are potent, so a little goes a long way. You want the spices to enhance the flavors of foods, not overpower the whole dish.
  • When blending several spices in a dish, experiment to find combinations you like. Be adventurous! A good ayurvedic cookbook, such as Heaven's Banquet by Miriam Hospodar, can start you out with suggestions for using spices especially balancing for mind and body in each season. Maharishi Ayurveda Churnas are convenient ways to incorporate the healing benefit of spices in your daily diet.
  • Many spices release their flavors and aromas best when sautéed in ghee (clarified butter) or oil, and some when they are dry-roasted. Be nimble when sautéing or roasting spices, as they tend to burn quickly. Remove from heat when aromas are released and continue stirring or shaking to prevent burning.
  • Look for organic, non-irradiated spices.
  • Store spices in airtight containers away from heat and light.

Some Ayurvedic Spices

Turmeric is an important spice in ayurveda. It is ubiquitous in ayurvedic cooking. It contains the flavonoid curcumin, which is known to have anti-inflammatory properties. This all-around wonder spice helps detoxify the liver, balance cholesterol levels, fight allergies, stimulate digestion, boost immunity and enhance the complexion. It is also an antioxidant. Ayurveda recognizes it as a heating spice, contributing bitter, pungent and astringent tastes.

Turmeric is a bright yellow-orange spice, and, used in tiny quantities, imparts a rich color and look to cooked white rice, potatoes or yellow lentils. Add it to the water in which rice or lentils are being cooked. It combines well with other spices such as cumin, coriander, cayenne pepper and fennel. Turmeric can stain fabrics and other materials, so handle carefully.

Additionally, U.S. researchers reported that curcumin, found in the spice turmeric, interferes with melanoma cells. Tests in laboratory dishes show that curcumin made melanoma skin cancer cells more likely to self-destruct in a process known as apoptosis. The same team has found that curcumin helped stop the spread of breast cancer tumor cells to the lungs of mice. The curcumin suppressed two proteins that tumor cells use to keep themselves immortal, the researchers write in the journal Cancer.

Cumin is popular in Indian, Mexican and Middle Eastern cuisines. According to ayurveda, it is a cooling spice. It is supposed to aid digestion and help flush toxins out of the body.

Cumin can be used either as whole seeds or ground, raw or dry-roasted. Ground raw, it is a dull brown color, which is enriched by being sautéed in ghee or oil. Powdered dry-roasted cumin is a rich brown in color. Both sautéing and roasting make the aroma and flavor of cumin come alive. Cumin combines well with a wide range of other spices, including turmeric, ground fennel, ground coriander, ground dry ginger and cinnamon.

Fennel is another cooling spice. According to ayurveda, fennel is extremely good for digestion. In India, eating a few fennel seeds after a meal is a common practice. Fennel seeds are sweetish in taste, and ground fennel works very well in sauces. The seeds can also be sautéed in ghee (clarified butter) and added to vegetable dishes.

These are just three gems from the vast treasure-chest of ayurvedic spices. For more information on other ayurvedic spices, and for informative articles on the ayurvedic approach to diet and digestion, see our ayurvedic recipes section.

The sole purpose of these articles is to provide information about the tradition of ayurveda. This information is not intended for use in the diagnosis, treatment, cure or prevention of any disease. If you have any serious acute or chronic health concern, please consult a trained health professional who can fully assess your needs and address them effectively. If you are seeking the medical advice of a trained ayurvedic expert, call or e-mail us for the number of a physician in your area. Check with your doctor before taking herbs or using essential oils when pregnant or nursing.