India is home to more than a billion people, more than 22 languages and upwards of 36 distinct cuisines. What binds together the culinary diversity of this nation is something small but alluring: its spices. The story of Indian spices dates back many millennia into the past. These spices are legendary for their medicinal properties, not to mention their delightful flavours and food-preserving powers. There were times when all roads led to India. The Greeks, Huns, Persians, Chinese, Jews, Zoroastrians, French, Dutch, British, all travelled through India or to India as final destination. Some came to visit, some sought refuge, some came to trade and some to conquer.
Some studies have shown that some ingredients used in preparation of different curries may help to prevent certain diseases, including heart conditions, colon cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
Below are some of the key spices used in Indian cooking.
Native of the east Mediterranean to India, an aromatic spice with a distinctive bitter flavor and strong, warm aroma due to its abundant oil content. Cumin seeds are actually the small dried fruit of an annual plant in the parsley family. Cumin is hotter to the taste, lighter in color. Traditional uses of cumin include to reduce inflammation, increase urination, prevent gas, and suppress muscle spasms. It has also been used as an aid for indigestion, jaundice, diarrhea, and flatulence.
Distinctly aromatic Coriander seeds are the dried berries of the coriander herb, Coriander is native to regions spanning from southern Europe and North Africa to southwestern Asia. They are widely used in Indian cuisine and on roasting or frying gives the characteristic curry flavor. In parts of Europe, coriander has traditionally been referred to as an “”anti-diabetic”” plant. In parts of India, it has traditionally been used for its anti-inflammatory properties. In the United States, coriander has recently been studied for its cholesterol-lowering effects.
This is a native of India and is a root. The powder made from the dried root is what gives the bright yellow color to the curries – one of the key ingredient in all curries. It possesses healing, antiseptic and anti-cancer properties. The prime ingredient in turmeric- curcumin is being researched as a cancer fighting drug.
Black Pepper (Kali Mirch):
Grown mainly in south India was a prized spice since 2nd century A.D and was exported to Europe in exchange for gold. It is used in Indian cuisine for its flavor and preservative qualities. Black pepper is also known to be beneficial in treating colds and respiratory infections.
In Indian cuisine the seeds, oil and leaves of the mustard plant are used. Mustard seeds have been highly prized culinary oil-seeds being in use since earlier times. Generally perceived as health benefiting spice, mustard seeds are indeed very rich in phyto-nutrients, minerals, vitamins and anti-oxidants.
Fenugreek is used as a herb, spice and vegetable as whole or powdered for their characteristic flavor. Its small brown seeds are famous for their use in medicine.
Cinnamon is a spice obtained from the inner bark of several trees from the genus Cinnamomum that is used in both sweet and savory foods. Used extensively in Indian cooking as powder for its flavor and aroma in meats and some desserts.