The spices of life

Boost the flavor factor and protect your health by cooking with these five spices

Winter weather always sends me right into the kitchen. No, not to fix a cup of hot cocoa. To warm my body and soul, I go straight to the spice rack to get started on a healthy vegetable curry. When it's cold, I find that spices like turmeric, cinnamon, ginger and cayenne pepper lend a bright flavor to cooking — plus a toasty aroma to the whole house.

Lately, I've been adding more turmeric than ever to my curries, not to mention liberally sprinkling cinnamon into my kids' oatmeal. It's not just because I love the way these spices taste, but also because clinical studies continue to confirm their incredible health benefits.

"Everyone's talking about how to get more affordable health care — cooking with spices is the easiest way to do it," says Bharat B. Aggarwal, Ph.D., professor in the department of experimental therapeutics at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and a pioneer in proving the health benefits of spices in clinical trials. "The anti-inflammatory abilities of turmeric, cinnamon, ginger and cayenne are absolutely remarkable — more effective than aspirin and many prescription meds, with no side effects." That's important, since inflammation is thought to underlie a slew of chronic diseases-including cancer, diabetes, allergies and heart disease.
Healing spices

Researchers believe the enzymes and volatile oils that give spices their flavors and preservative properties also contain powerful antiinflammatories and unique phytochemicals that can work magic in the body. Cinnamon, for instance, has been shown to moderate blood glucose levels; turmeric is turning out to be a natural tumor suppressor. But beyond the latest clinical research, spice-eating cultures are simply healthier, Aggarwal says. "The rate of lung, prostate, breast and colon cancers is more than 50 times lower in India than in the United States," he notes.

The health benefits only increase when you use the spices together. "The healing properties in spices are especially potent when combined with one another," Aggarwal says. "There is wisdom in curry."

Tapping into that wisdom only requires a willingness to experiment with flavors and a little know-how. Here's a guide to the five most healthful spices, along with some advice on how to cook with and combine them. For our spicy — and mostly vegetarian — winter recipes, see pg. 89. tarmieric
• turmeric

what it is» The root of the Curcuma longa plant, dried and ground into powder.

what it tastes like» Bitter and sweet.

why it's good for you» Researcher Bharat Aggarwal was responsible for the groundbreaking 1995 discovery that curcumin, the active phytonutrient in turmeric, actually interferes with the growth of tumors. While there is no clinical proof yet that turmeric can prevent cancer, a 2009 Chinese study suggests it is effective in inhibiting the metastasizing of melanoma cells. A recent University of California, Los Angeles, study also indicates that turmeric may help the immune system clear the brain of amyloid beta, which form the plaques found in Alzheimer's disease. Aggarwal says that curcumin has the ability to turn off a "master switch" of inflammation in the body, and recommends eating a teaspoon or two of turmeric every day for optimal health.

how to cook with it» Turmeric — which is used extensively in Indian, Moroccan and Thai cuisines — pairs well with white meats, potatoes, rice, mustard and most other spices like coriander, cumin and ginger. It's the base spice used in building curry. Try it in our recipes for Homemade Curry Powder (pg. 67) and Cauliflower-Potato Curry (pg. 89).
• cayenne pepper

what it is» Dried, ground red chili peppers such as bird peppers (Capsicum annuum L).

what it tastes like» Warm and spicy, with a zingy, sharp bite.

why it's good for you» Cayenne pepper contains capsaicin, a phytochemical that has been linked to weight loss, pain relief and cardiovascular health. A 2009 Danish study confirmed capsaicin's role in suppressing the appetite by creating feelings of satiety that can aid in weight loss. A number of studies have suggested capsaicin has an analgesic effect because it blocks a protein critical to the transmission of pain signals in the body; a comprehensive 2008 arthritis care study in the U.K. confirmed the effectiveness of capsaicin in relieving arthritis pain.

how to cook with it» A little cayenne pepper goes a long way, and its heat increases the longer it's cooked. Add a pinch (about an eighth of a teaspoon) near the end of cooking to fish or tomato-based dishes, soups and stews. Try it in our Spicy Grapefruit-Cayenne Salmon, recipe on pg. 89.
• cinnamon

what it is» The bark of the Cinnamomum zeylanicum tree, dried and usually ground.

what it tastes like» Warm, sweet and slightly bitter with a hint of smokiness.

why it's good for you» Renowned for lowering blood glucose and LDL ("bad") cholesterol, cinnamon's diabetes-managing prowess was further explored in a 2009 study that linked it to lower levels of hemoglobin A10 in patients with type II diabetes. Since hemoglobin levels are a good indicator of long-term blood-glucose control, the study suggests that cinnamon may help treat type II diabetes. An effective dose for cardiovascular health is about one-half teaspoon every day.

how to cook with it» Drop a teaspoon or two into pancake batter or steel-cut oats and add it early in the cooking process (to allow its flavor to blend properly). Cinnamon is also a component of Indian garam masala (mixed with cardamom, cloves, coriander and black pepper). Try it in Roasted Figs with Cinnamon, recipe on pg. 89.
• ginger

what it is» The root of the Zingiber officinale plant, sold fresh and as a dried powder.

what it tastes like» Warm and piquant, with a somewhat flowery bite.

why it's good for you» In Ayurveda, ginger is known as "the universal medicine" for its anti-inflammatory properties and ability to soothe indigestion. Recent clinical studies support as safe its occasional use to relieve nausea during pregnancy (an effective dose is about 1,000 milligrams of ginger powder, or about a quarter of a typical 3-inch piece of fresh ginger). It has also been shown to ease motion sickness and may be effective in managing arthritis. A set of Japanese animal studies published in the International Journal of Cancer suggested ginger may also prevent colon and lung cancer.

how to cook with it» Ginger pairs well with honey, lemon, lime, scallions, soy sauce, carrots and fish; it's popular in Asian cuisine and is one of the crucial components in curry.
• cumin

what it is» The seeds, often roasted and ground, of the flowering plant Cuminum cyminum, which can be found in Mediterranean Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, India and South America.

what it tastes like» Bitter, pungent and slightly sweet.

why it's good for you» Cumin is said to help in the treatment of the common cold when added to hot milk. In Sri Lanka, toasting cumin seeds and then boiling them in water makes a tea used to soothe stomach discomfort. Recent animal studies suggest that black cumin seed may reduce the risk of liver cancer.

how to cook with it» Add it early in the cooking process (to mellow its strong flavor) to meats, beans, lentils, rice, potatoes and Mexican, Indian or Moroccan dishes. Try it in our Carrot Salad, recipe on pg. 89.

The healing properties in spices are especially potent when they're combined with one another.

Can't find a fresh fig? Immerse dried figs in simmering water for 5 minutes, allow water and figs to cool, then drain.
Nice spice!

For the freshest flavor, buy your spices whole — cumin seeds, cinnamon sticks, ginger root — and grate, slice or grind them yourself in aa coffee grinder.(You might want to have a grinder dedicated to the task so you can avoid, say, turmeric-flavored coffee.) If you're not the DIY type, or your hectic schedule makes it unrealistic seek out a spice store or specialty food store in your area that will grind them fresh for you, Two online sources of fresh spices favored by some of New York's best-known chefs are and
Curry in a hurry

Make your own customized curry powder blend with this easy recipe.
Homemade Curry Powder

4 tablespoons ground coriander
2 tablepoons ground black peppercorns
1 teaspoon ground cloves
6 tablespoons ground turmeric
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½teaspoon cayenne pepper
Salt to taste, after cooking

Combine all ingredients in a cast-iron skillet. Cook over medium heat until powder is just fragrant and beginning to brown, about 4 minutes, stirring almost constantly. Remove from heat, allow to cool and store in an airtight jar. Yield: 14 tablespoons.

According to Indian-born chef Gautam Patel — a 30-year veteran of the London and New York Indian restaurant scenes-there are as many curry recipes as there are Indian chefs. Each of India's 18 distinct regions has its favorite ingredients and spice ratios. The curry powder here is a mild mix that's most popular in the West. It will stay fresh in your pantry for up to three months. Use between 1 and 2 tablespoons for most dishes, and be sure to use a lot of fresh garlic when cooking with curry. Garlic is valued in Indian cuisine for its vibrant flavor and high content of allicin, a disease-fighting phytonutrient.

Healthy recipes:

Learn more» Hungry for more spicy dishes? Visit

PHOTO (COLOR): From top: Carrot Salad and Cauliflower-Potato Curry with basmati rice

PHOTO (COLOR): Spicy Grapefruit-Cayenne Salmon

PHOTO (COLOR): Roasted Figs with Cinnamon


Story by Robert Firpo-Cuppiello; RECIPES BY Kana Okada; PHOTOGRAPHY BY Kana Okada

Share this with your friends