SLOAN! Magazine spoke to food & spice expert Kalpna Woolf about the wonderful world of spices.
In one generation we have transformed what we eat, enthusiastically adopting and embracing the best food cuisines from around the world and populating every high street in Britain with restaurants and shops selling us almost any food we want to eat and dishes we hadn’t even heard of 30 years ago. It’s one of the real pleasures of living and working in our capital now – if we want, we can eat anything we want from almost anywhere in the world, from Thailand to India, Vietnam, Italy, Spain, Morocco, China and so on.
At the heart of nearly all of these world food cuisines are one of the world’s oldest and most intriguing food powerhouses – spices. They come packed with exotic flavours, centuries of tradition, the ability to magically transform any dish, but also with almost mystical medicinal and healing powers. In so many ways they are food’s holy grail – offering instant seductive flavour, but calorie free, full of natural goodness, long-lasting health benefits and even weight loss properties. If we can learn how to master them and make them a part of our daily food lives, we can eat gloriously tasty food that is also naturally healthy and can help us lose weight. Could this be the basis for an elusive have-it-all diet for life – the spice diet?
Spices have been part of the world’s food, trade and medicinal history for centuries, fought over, transported all over the world, and the creators of vast personal fortunes. But whilst they were always traded for their taste, they have also been especially valued for their healing powers and preservative properties. Early Chinese archives mention using spices with herbs to support overall health; coriander seeds have been found in Egyptian tombs and were used for headaches and muscular pain; turmeric was a staple part of the Ayurveda diet 5,000 years ago; the Romans carried cumin because they thought it was ‘strength giving’; and for centuries some spices were used to ward off evil, whilst others like cinnamon, chilli and cardamom were thought of as aphrodisiacs.
Now we are discovering and embracing the modern health benefits of spices in our foods. All spices are entirely natural – from roots, berries, plants, fruits or trees – so they are already free of the additives, preservatives and colours that dominate so many of our contemporary foods. But spices also come near the leader board of foods rich in antioxidants and spices such as turmeric, cinnamon, ginger and garlic are regularly being cited now for their health giving properties. For example, turmeric contains a compound called curcumin, which is thought to alleviate inflammation, joint problems, bacterial infections, whilst research is now investigating its positive effects on major illnesses such as cancer and dementia.
In fact turmeric, ginger, cayenne pepper, chillies and cinnamon produce a ‘thermogenic’ effect in the body. They cause the body to heat up and in simple terms, they use more energy to burn fat. This can make the metabolism speed up. Cinnamon is naturally sweet and doesn’t have the yo-yo effect of sugar and critically helps reduce the risk of reaching for sugary, fat-laden snacks. In fact cinnamon helps to regulate insulin levels as it reduces blood sugar levels that can lead to fat storage in the body.
Garlic and ginger are the big fresh spice health hitters. Garlic contains a compound called Allicin which protects cells and supports and helps to strengthen the immune system. Garlic is rich in vitamin C, high in antioxidants and potassium and it also has antiseptic properties. Ginger has been used as a treatment for stomach upsets and nausea for centuries, but modern science has now discovered its anti-inflammatory powers and it is being used to alleviate pain in illnesses such as arthritis.
And it isn’t just the big spice beasts which we hear about every day which have these health properties. Most spices contain vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. The humble and aromatic fennel seeds are a good source of potassium, magnesium, calcium and vitamins B and C; the pungent fenugreek seeds contain vitamins, minerals and are rich in antioxidants; carom seeds (or bishop weed) contain an essential oil, thymol, which is an antiseptic and has anti-inflammatory properties; even the small star anise contains a good source of Vitamins A, B and C.
So spices really should be an essential part of a healthy lifestyle and their qualities offer effective antidotes for our busy, hectic daily lives. When we often rush our food, eat at erratic times or suffer stress, spices such as cardamom, ginger and fennel can really soothe the stomach. A warm drink of fresh ginger, lemon and honey not only does this, but it also helps to keep bugs at bay and supports our immune systems. Starting the day with a hot water infused with fennel and mint will cleanse your stomach and clear the mind.
So we have learnt to enjoy spicy foods from around the world and now we are becoming more confident to try them at home too. If we can learn to understand the health benefits of spices and how to combine them effectively we can create delicious meals, prolong healthy lives and reduce our weight. Now there’s an incentive, isn’t it?
Spice Yourself Slim by Kalpna Woolf (£16.99) is published by Pavilion Books with photography by Clare Winfield (www.pavilionbooks.com)