Can eating curry really improve your well-being and overall health? Researchers seem to think so. With impossible-to-ignore health benefits, curry is said to help alleviate a number of health challenges, such as easing inflammation, activating the immune and digestive systems, releasing toxins and even killing cancer cells, amongst other advantages. Try cooking with a few of these colourful spices, good for you on so many levels.
Rich in colour. Explosive in flavour. High in nutritional value. Curry has been around for centuries, not only because of its characteristic warm spices, but also for its health benefits on the body and mind. Here’s a look at the ten traditional Indian food spices and why they are good for you.
1. Gastronomic turmeric
Often used to colour food, bitter-flavoured turmeric is bright yellow in colour and is one of the most popular of spices used for curry. Says Enid Hudson, massage therapist, nutritionist and qualified nurse; “Containing a high level of antioxidants, it functions as an anti-inflammatory and antibiotic. Turmeric also fights free radicals, protects the liver, lowers cholesterol and is good for arthritic problems.” According to Faaiza Paruk, registered dietician for Healthinsite, although the spice has been used for centuries, scientists are only now discovering the health benefits associated with the spice. “Studies still being conducted, show that turmeric may have the properties to help prevent or destroy cancer cells, and may also help to prevent blood clotting in heart patients,” she says.
2. Genuine cumin
Another wonder spice, cumin seeds are usually roasted before they are added to the dish, to enhance the flavour of the curry. “Not only is it used for its taste, but cumin is also used as a traditional Indian remedy for indigestion,” says Andrea Jenkins, nutritional therapist. “It aids the process with the secretion of digestive juices and helps to relieve pain and cramps in the abdomen.” Margit Gilliot, Ayurvedic practitioner at the Nalanda Ayurvedic Centre in Greyton, adds that cumin in hot water is excellent as a tonic for alleviating the effects of colds and fevers. “Although it is pungent in taste, cumin can help to boost your immune system. Research on cumin is ongoing, as more health benefits are constantly being discovered.”
3. Jolly chilli
“Capsaicin, the substance that gives chillies their heat, varies from one type of chilli to the next,” says Paruk. “This ingredient is essential in most Indian dishes and curries. Chillies are rich in vitamins and minerals, which are important for the optimum functioning of the body.” Hudson agrees; “Chillies aid digestion, improve circulation, stop bleeding from ulcers, are good for the heart, kidneys, lungs, pancreas, spleen and stomach and are useful for arthritis and rheumatism,” she says. “Hot chillies also act as a cooling mechanism for the body, as it can make you sweat and also helps to ward off colds, sinus infections and sore throats.” Chillies, when ingested, also stimulate the release of endorphins, which can help to improve your mood, enhancing feelings of happiness and joy.
4. Stellar ginger
Ginger has been used as a natural remedy for many ailments for centuries in Chinese, Tibetan and Ayurvedic systems of medicine. Besides adding flavour to any dish, research has found that ginger has anti-cancer properties and reduces the growth and causes cell death in ovarian and colorectal cancer. Jenkins explains that ginger can be used for nausea and vomiting, so it’s good to keep on long road trips for motion sickness and even during pregnancy for morning sickness. Similarly to chilli, ginger brings heat into the body and promotes perspiration, which helps to lower the body temperature.
5. Superhuman cinnamon
“The cinnamon tree grows in India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Brazil, Vietnam and Egypt. In traditional Chinese medicine, Cassia cinnamon is used for colds, flatulence, nausea, diarrhoea, and painful menstrual periods,” says Paruk. “It’s also believed to improve energy, vitality and circulation, and be particularly useful for people who tend to feel hot in their upper body, but have cold feet.” Used extensively in the system of Ayurveda, cinnamon is used as a remedy for diabetes, indigestion and colds. Recent research has also shown that merely smelling cinnamon, or chewing cinnamon-flavoured gum, actually enhances certain areas of the brain functioning and processing – in terms of memory, attention, focus, visual-motor speed and recognition.
6. Eureka paprika
Paprika, discovered in Mexico, is extraordinarily high in vitamin C, says Paruk. “It is said that paprika contains as much as nine times as much vitamin C as one tomato does in weight. One would think the drying process would lessen the vitamin C potency, but instead it binds it further,” she says. Paprika is good for increasing saliva production, normalising stomach acids to assist with digestion, and it is also known to regulate blood pressure and improve circulation by providing a blood thinning agent and in some countries, it is used as an anti-biotic. As with chillies, it contains capsaicin, which stimulates endorphin production and increases feelings of wellbeing. Contrary to popular belief, the redder the colour paprika appears – the milder it is, whereas the yellow variety is very hot and flavourful.
7. Crimson saffron
According to a 2005 study, a 30-milligram capsule of saffron daily for six weeks was as effective as Prozac in treating mild to moderate depression. Traditionally, the spice was used for hysteria and menstrual disorders. Ongoing research about the world’s most expensive spice suggests that there is still much to learn about this unique ingredient and how exactly it benefits the body. Says Paruk; “Other early research suggests that compounds in the spice may have anti-cancer activity, may stimulate the secretion of stomach acids, and can stimulate the contraction of smooth muscles (such as the uterus). Compounds in saffron may also have some effects on lowering cholesterol levels.”
8. Lovely cloves
Cloves have anti-septic, anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-parasitic properties and act as a digestive aid for the stomach and are also known to reduce blood sugar levels. Jenkins suggests chewing on one or two cloves to refresh the mouth and overcome bad breath. “Not only are cloves are quite versatile in the kitchen, and can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes, but they are also great for relieving coughs and colds,” she says. “They are also a natural anaesthetic, and can be used to help remedy a toothache.” Not so commonly-known, is that cloves make for a good moth and mosquito repellent and may also help to reduce the craving for alcohol.
9. Optimum cardamom
“Cardamom medicinal uses range from relieving stomach dyspepsia, increasing appetite, soothing the mucus membranes, relieving gas and heartburn, and eliminating bad breath. The health benefits of cardamom are seen in treating diseases such as gonorrhoea, urinary tract disorders, cystitis and nephritis,” says Paruk. “However, care must be taken not to exceed more than a pinch of cardamom seed extracts, as excessive use may lead to impotency. Herbal teas made of cardamom and cinnamon extracts help to relieve sore throats, throat disorders and hoarseness during a bout of flu.” Gilliot points out that cardamom also helps to neutralise caffeine in coffee.
10. Nutty nutmeg
Nutmeg, although delicious in curry and other sweet dishes, should be used with caution, explains Jenkins, as too much of the spice is known to have a disorienting effect on the mind, and can cause delirium. “It should be taken sparingly, only by adults, because of its very strong action on the body. It is good, however, as a relaxant, and helps to alleviate insomnia and muscle tension,” she says. Nutmeg also helps to break up chest congestion and stimulate blood circulation, says Hudson. “This spice encourages food absorption, particularly in the small intestine,” she says.
What’s for dinner tonight?
South Africa’s melting pot of curries includes Indian, Thai and traditional South African styles, all with distinct flavours, unique to each culture. So, what’s the difference between them?
- Thai Curry
- Thai curries are the freshest and lightest of all the curries as the meat and vegetables are boiled in the curry sauce. To make them even less fattening, lean meat and light coconut milk, instead of the full cream option can be used.
- Indian Curry
- Indian curries are slightly heavier and can be more fattening if too much oil is used or if you have a weakness for Naan bread! On the other hand, Indian curries make for balanced meals, because of their inclusion of foods from all the food groups, such as; proteins, carbohydrates, fibre, vegetables and fats
- South African Curry
- South African curries are usually sweeter and fruitier than Indian and Thai curries. These curries usually contain fewer preservatives, as the meals are created from scratch. Raisins, sultanas, sweet chutney and coconut flakes are used in many of the dishes.
Celeb chefs curry cravings
Tracy Foulkes, owner and creator of NoMU Brands, a Cape Town-based producer and exporter of speciality food products:
“I love all curry ingredients, but nothing beats the smell of cinnamon to get the taste buds going! In fact, I actually have a weakness for anything with cinnamon in it, be it apple strudel, cinnamon buns, or our rainy day family favourite; home-made pancakes with cinnamon, sugar and lemon. Curries have that special heartiness and comfort element to them with the best part being how easy they are to make. Curries are a very accessible and approachable type of gourmet food that involves knowing a little bit about what the best quality ingredients will produce in an unforgettable curry!”
Zahra Karmali, owner and chef of award-winning Karma restaurant, specialising in contemporary Indian food:
“I love the fact that there are so many spices so full of colour, taste and incredible flavour that can be used for curry. My favourite spice is ginger – it is a wonderful aphrodisiac and is so versatile! Every region in India has their own way of mixing spices and cooking and this has inspired me in my restaurant. I enjoy the fact that I can combine the different recipes and create delicious new and innovative flavours, still using the traditional spices and ingredients. We are what we eat – and I truly believe that food is medicine. On a daily basis we recreate our body, mind and emotions, with what we put into it with nutrition and thoughts. Awareness about food is most powerful for our all over wellbeing!”
- Nalanda Ayurvedic Centre, Ayurveda Wellness and Pancha Karma Detox Retreats Greyton, 028-254-9027, http://www.nalanda.co.za
- NoMU Brands, 021-386-2000, http://www.nomu.co.za
- Karma Restaurant, 011-646-8555, http://www.karmakorporate.co.za
- Healthinsite, 0861-066-666, http://www.healthinsite.net
- Andrea Jenkins Nutritionist, 084-336-6383, http://www.andreajenkins.co.za
- Enid Hudson Massage Therapist & Nutritionist, 012-998-9610, http://www.enid-hudson-massage-therapist.co.za
Author: Charlene Yared-West. Published in Longevity Magazine, February 2010, p. 87.