If you love spicy food, then perhaps you instinctually appreciate the aromatic, colorful allure of well-spiced cuisine. For some, the draw is innate; there is something so enticing about the crimson kick of cayenne (Capsicum annuum) and the warming brown of cinnamon, not to mention that lovely golden hue that turmeric brings to a curry. However, spices add much more to food than color and flavor. If you like spices, it is for good reason. Not only are spices tasty, they are right up there with organ meats in terms of nutritional density (Palanisamy, 2015)! Vegetarianism aside, I don’t know about you, but I’ll take spices over organ meats any day! Few other foods are as chock full of vitamins, antioxidants, and other beneficial constituents as spices. They are treasure troves of flavor and nutrition.
This article will explore five of the best Ayurvedic kitchen spices to keep in stock in your kitchen. I have selected these particular spices primarily because of their importance in traditional Ayurvedic cooking and herbalism. However, there is also significant modern scientific research to support the validity of the uses of these spices passed on in ancient Ayurvedic teachings.
Top 5 Ayurvedic Kitchen Spices
Turmeric (Curcuma longa)
Turmeric has gained much popularity in the past several years. As an Ayurvedic practitioner, I generally don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all approach. However, I had a good chuckle when I recently saw an Instagram post from a colleague that read, “I’ve got 99 problems, but turmeric solved like 86 of them.” Turmeric may not be the fix for everything, but it comes pretty close to offering something for everyone.
In Ayurveda, turmeric has traditionally been used as a digestive, alterative, cholagogue, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial. Furthermore, there is significant research to indicate that it has efficacy in the case of cancer and Alzheimer’s. One randomized placebo-controlled double-blind study demonstrated that turmeric rivals non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) in its ability to effectively lessen joint pain (Kuptniratsaikul et. al, 2014). A number of other studies have similarly proven turmeric’s anti-inflammatory prowess (Palanisamy, 2015). On the whole, turmeric is one of the most broadly researched spices.
Turmeric also adds a lively, bright yellow hue to any dish. This golden-orange root is a staple of Indian and Ayurvedic cooking. Turmeric helps break proteins down during the digestive process and is, therefore, an ideal ingredient in legume dishes (Dass, 2013). As a practitioner, I often suggest turmeric for clients who have skin and liver congestion, which may manifest as acne, PMS, and/or irritability. This is because of turmeric’s function as an alterative and cholagogue, meaning that it has blood-cleansing properties and helps stimulate the flow of bile from the liver.
Turmeric is warming in nature, so those who run warm may want to take it alongside cooling botanicals such as aloe vera, coriander, or rose. Also, taking turmeric with a little black pepper (Piper nigrum) and a lipid (such as ghee) increases its bioavailability by 2,000% (Palanisamy, 2015)! This is why cooking with turmeric is so valuable — you are much more likely to get a superior absorption of turmeric by frying it in ghee or another oil and adding some black pepper.
Many of the benefits of turmeric can be obtained by simply cooking with it on a regular basis. However, there are times when taking a concentrated turmeric supplement is called for. I have personally found turmeric extract to be a useful supplement in dealing with acute muscle and joint-related pain and inflammation. Turmeric Force by New Chapter is a good option because a special carbon dioxide process is used that produces a full-spectrum root extract.
On another note, it is quite popular nowadays to supplement with only curcumin. While you will likely get benefits from this option, there are many other beneficial constituents in turmeric beyond curcumin. Depending upon your desired outcome, supplementing with the full-spectrum root extract may be preferable to taking an isolated curcumin extract.
Turmeric is generally safe when used as a cooking spice. However, it does have blood-thinning properties, so those on blood-thinning medications and those who are undergoing surgery should consult with a physician before taking a turmeric supplement. The same holds true for those with diabetes and those with active liver disease and gallstones. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should also avoid turmeric supplements, but it is safe to use in cooking (Palanisamy, 2015).
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