"Stimulants of the sacred life-giving and transformative force of the element of Fire"
Spices are rich in taste but lesser known is their numerous and important health benefits. The real history of Spices was overshadowed by the history of their journey to the west. Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine our tables without salt and pepper, usually prominently featured at the center of our dining tables, Or without all the “Curry houses” that we have across England, making Curry our number one takeaway food. Going back some hundred years ago, a time before Spices were ubiquitous and when Nutmeg was worth more than gold, the very competitive Spice trade was shaping the world in the name of new tastes and sensations, wars were fought and the economy boomed. Prior to these tumultuous times, Spices had a more far-reaching purpose. They were deemed: Medicinal, Keys to good health, and Stimulants of the sacred life-giving and transformative force of the element of Fire.
Nutritionally we are much more aware than ever before but some foods are so desirable that we can be inclined to neglect their other attributes. We know exactly why we eat a blander food like Rice, it has carbohydrates that give us energy. From a culinary perspective, it compliments other foods. Conversely with Spices, we are all too familiar with its culinary value, quite opposite to ‘bland’ on the taste and sensations scales, but we don’t know near as well about their functional value, thought of mainly as a way to add flavour and excitement to our dishes, supported by foodie aphorisms like “spicing it up”. In actual fact, Spices have a furthermore integral and serious value, Health and well being, in particular of our digestive system.
Everyday Spices that we have come to use in foods have originated from the practice of Ayurveda. Ayurveda is a complete health and body science. It has been tried and tested for thousands of years and has been practically unchanged in all that time because there has not been any need to. Ayurveda advocates that we take responsibility for our body as we might imagine a God-like entity taking care of a universe, managing the well being and co-habitation of billions of life forms, keeping them all in balance and in harmony.
Spices warm our bodies, we feel it, this is because they are related to the element of fire. According to Ayurveda, all things are comprised of four elements: Air, Earth, Fire, and Water, maintaining their proper proportions within our bodies is the way to manage personal health. The element of fire is more heavily required during digestion, Spices stoke this digestive fire (Agni). Agni should be maintained like a candlelight, steady; Not like a wild bonfire being blown in the wind and nor like a candle running out of wax, flickering on it’s way out! Under or overstimulation of the digestive fire can lead to health problems.
The ancients secrets of Ayurveda are becoming more common knowledge as they are being more tried and tested by people and by modern science. Here’s a list of just some of the benefits provided by common spices as found in a typical (good quality) curry:
- Absorption of nutrients
- Reducing gas and bloating
- Supporting pancreatic and small intestine enzyme activity
- Increasing the growth of beneficial bacteria
- Promoting bile flow from the liver
- Improving fat and sugar metabolism
- Promoting optimal weight: Shrinking fat tissues; Blocks the formation of new fat cells
- Supporting microbiology health
- Reduction in the food transit time
- Supporting healthy elimination
Ayurveda tells us that the cause of many of the illnesses and disease that can befall us will be rooted in what we are eating and the condition of our digestive processes. Good health means good digestion. Most of the spices used in Indian cooking have health benefits and support the digestive system. The goals are to transit food to their final destination (!) as efficiently as possible and absorbing as much goodness from it as possible while maintaining body balance.
Gharam masala, the most well-known Spice blend, used in so many of the savory dishes all across India ticks all the digestive health promoting boxes, and it’s not by chance, it too was conceived by Ayurveda, and for the very purpose of supporting proper digestion. Gharam masala works as a generic, versatile, fit for purpose swiss army knife of Indian cuisine.
However, if you are ready to take things to the next level then you must come to recognize that your body is unique and realize that there is no such thing as one diet fits all. According to Ayurveda we are all made of the same stuff but in varying constitutions. Every person’s aim is to regulate or maintain balance in their bodies in accordance with their own uniqueness, contrary to some popular notions that there is some single ideal that we all should be aiming towards. That is why we can say that Ayurveda treats the person, not the disease. Be yourself is the central tenant in this doctrine. A skilled Ayurvedic practitioner can help you understand your own unique constitution, how you can diagnose your state of health and how to regulate it.
Knowing more about Spices can be a most rewarding step on the way to achieving a personal and sustainable healthy life balance. We know that each Spice has many benefits and play vital roles in digestion which is itself vital to the proper functioning of the body. Getting hold of most spices is no longer an obstacle since the spice trade wars have put them in easy reach for most people. An important consideration that is too often overlooked is the quality of Spices. Sorry to say, but chances are that if you are buying them at a ‘good’ price in superstores then you are probably not getting the good stuff!
It’s the oil content of Spices that contain most of the health benefits. The oil gets dried out if the whole spices have been grounded down a while before they are used. The fresher the better. Good suppliers will only sell Spices with a short shelf life, costly but worth it for your health, and for the taste too. Another alternative is to buy quality whole Spices and grind them yourself only when you need them.
There is a lot more that can be said about Spices and Ayurveda but the purpose of this short message is to highlight the health benefits of Spices and to remind us that there is much more to them than their sensory delights. Spices can be thrilling and nothing wrong with having fun with them but using Spices with a more minimalistic and regular usage might even be better for culinary enjoyment in the long run, but certainly better for our health.
"The soul is devoid of any pathology.
It is the cause of the manifestation of consciousness through the mind and the elements (sound, touch, vision, taste, smell).
She is eternal.
She is an observer, the observer of all activities (body and mind). "
- Caraka Samhita
- Vasant Lad (2011). Ayurveda, The science of Self-Healing. A Practical guide. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.