Those of us who have a fully stocked Indian kitchen will attest that our friends often find our kitchens amazing and perplexing all at once. How DO we keep track of all those spices and methods? We happily share the aromas and textures, hoping secretly that our friends might even try their hand at the simplest of dishes. Sometimes we quickly scribble a simple recipe. Sometimes we hand them small pinches of spices in little zip-top bags and say, “Would you like to add this the next time you want to make ___?”
Any of us with even a teeny tiny pinch of Indian heritage have mostly learned by example – from watching elders or grandparents cook yummy foods and fix minor ailments, right at home, from the same toolbox, their kitchen. Through recipes and stories, many of us have learned about how a particular spice cured a pesky ailment, or how a particular spice was THE secret ingredient in grandma’s world famous dish. Those of us brave enough will admit to wandering into the kitchen looking for home-remedies for those scratchy throats, annoying sniffles, aches or even insomnia.
All this knowledge has filtered through the generations, simplified from Ayurveda, our favorite Indian folk medicine. This age old branch of medicine was penned in about 5,000 BCE. It details how one can take care of one’s’ body – using season appropriate foods and diets, specific cooking methods to enhance the beneficial qualities of prepared foods, incorporating physical and mental exercise to keep the body fit and meditation to help center the soul. Generations upon generations of Indian families have taken this knowledge and unknowingly used its principles to improve health and provide an overall balance to their well being. Yoga, pilates, ‘body-flow’ exercises, sound therapy, chanting or meditation, massage therapy and many other practices have a basis in this ancient doctrine. However, its essence lies in eating appropriately.
Even the most modern Indian kitchen is abuzz with tantalizing aromas and the flavors of the season much like how Ayurveda prescribes it. Spring and summer diets deliberately include fresh, juice laden fruits like melons and cantaloupes, succulent mango, pineapples and whatever else is fresh off the trees, whereas the cool months of Fall invites flavors that showcase the bountiful harvests of vegetables, pumpkins and squashes. Of all the seasons, the relationship between food made well and just right, and its health benefits remain front and center in winter foods and flavors.
The mention of winter prompts us to immediately think of hot soups, casseroles and steaming beverages. But how does one really create new flavors in them? After all, a potato is a potato, is a potato and any kind of pepper makes a dish spicy, right? No, not really. Have you ever noticed that raw peanuts and roasted peanuts taste different? Or that fresh tomatoes taste different than canned ones? And in the midst of all this, how does one create a layer of ‘umpf’ to make a dish special? How can you add a dash of something you already are eating, to make it good for your health?
Most people associate good food as one that has good flavor. Yet, we also know that not all ‘good-for-you’ things taste delicious or vice versa. It is quite simple really. In any dish, good flavor becomes part of the preparation in one of these ways –
Different cooking methods (steaming, frying, shallow frying etc),
The ingredient itself (watermelon, pumpkins, etc),
Spices (ginger, garlic, jalapenos etc), or
A combination of any of these.
Of all these, I believe that spices act like a magicians hat when it comes to creating culinary masterpieces. When used correctly, spices have the ability to transform most mundane ingredients into delightful morsels of healthy and flavorful goodness. Spices not only highlight the flavor of a dish and you don’t need a lot to make a difference. By using a small quantity of any particular spice, but by activating its beneficial qualities, spices are immensely beneficial to ones’ body.
Choosing the right spice to help your body, as per the season – can be an effective way to achieve harmony in all the aspects of your health.
Let me share how these four common spices are particularly good to eat during the winter months.
Many of us associate ginger with ginger ale, ginger chai, punches, and particularly in gingerbread. It is a very common spice in an Indian kitchen. Fresh ginger root is pungent, sharp and crisp to the taste and is a good appetite builder and a digestive aid. In large quantities, it is considered too warming for the body and so, must be used in moderation, especially for folks with a delicate stomach. This rhizome is easily found in fresh, preserved or paste form in ethnic grocery stores. Store bought pre-made ginger pastes are often only prescribed as convenience in complex dishes rather than for its health benefits. To get the best flavor and to extract its optimal health benefits, use fresh ginger, plump with flavor, clean and dry to touch on the surface. If you are using a small quantity of fresh ginger, save the skin to add to winter brews that will be strained (such as chai) and use the flesh for cooking. Everyday dishes where the inclusion of ginger is beneficial to ones’ health include chai, daals or stews, a quick ginger digestive (recipe) etc.
Whole or powdered dried ginger is very different in taste and application than fresh ginger and they are not interchangeable in any recipe. Pungent in nature, it is also considered warming for the body and is frequently added in very small amounts to hot brews such as chai. Its potent healing qualities make it an essential ingredient in many post-natal diets, especially for lactating mothers. Dried ginger must be scraped clean to remove the white lime coating and coarsely crushed with a mortar and pestle first, before it is ground further using a heavy duty blender. Unlike the skin of fresh ginger, discard the skin of dried ginger. Sift the ground dried ginger to remove any fibers and use it sparingly. Simple everyday dishes where using dried ginger is beneficial to ones’ health, include chai, herbal chai, masala milk etc.
Sesame seeds (black and white) and sesame oil
Sesame seeds (black and white) are mild and nutty in flavor. These delicate seeds release their flavors on low–medium heat. They are warming for the body and are best used in small quantities in savory preparations. Many dessert preparations such as Til Chikki (sesame seed brittle) use sesame seeds as a main ingredient. In these cases, such preparations must be consumed in moderation. Sesame oil is particularly preferred in Northern India not only for cooking, but also for massages! Everyday dishes that can easily incorporate a dash of sesame seeds include trail mixes or a dusting of lightly toasted sesame seeds on a bowl of cereal, a shake / smoothie or on baked items.
Jaggery is a popular additive in many Indian stews and daals and sometimes replaces sugar in chai or even desserts. In small quantities it is great for the body as it contains a high amount of iron. Jaggery is made from sugarcane and is sold in stores in small blocks or a small pyramid like shape. It looks like a mound of yellowish-tan colored wax! Jaggery has a caramel like flavor and a little bit goes a long way. Everyday dishes that can include jaggery include its use in small quantities use as a sugar substitute (chai, coffee), in daals, in desserts such as Til Chikki or other chikki. Some folks often will add a small piece of whole jaggery to their plate, and it is consumed as is.
These four spices or flavors are easy to find, easy to incorporate and most importantly, very easy to love. By adding small quantities into your winter diet, incrementally of course, you will actually begin to feel better during the winter months. No more winter blues for you, because you will remain in the pink of health!
Recipe: Quick Ginger Digestive
Cook-time: Nil (plus 30 minutes of inactive time)
Makes: 5-8 servings
2” piece of fresh ginger, peeled and julienned
¼ tsp Sindhav or Rock Salt
Pinch of table salt, to taste
1 tsp / dash of fresh lemon juice, to taste
Combine the fresh ginger with Sindhav and table salt in a glass or steel container and keep covered for 30 minutes. When the ginger has softened, add fresh lemon juice to it and mix it in well. It is ready to eat. Serve a teaspoon alongside a meal or consume 10 minutes before meal time. As delicious as it may be, consuming more than a teaspoon in one serving will aggravate the lining of your stomach.
Note: An edited version of this piece appeared in the February 2015 issue of Khabar Magazine.