The spice-box is an intrinsic part of every Ayurvedic kitchen, as it is in many other cultures around the world. The exotic colors and heady aromas of spices can elevate an ordinary dish to a sublime feast for the senses.
What's more, most spices also come with therapeutic properties, such as aiding digestion and boosting immunity. Every meal that includes spices can become an experience in enhancing health and well-being.
Here are a few helpful pointers on cooking with Ayurvedic spices—plus some helpful information on their health-promoting benefits.
Ayurveda and spices
Ayurveda has been singing the praises of spices as superfoods for thousands of years. Spices are ingredients in many synergistic Ayurvedic herbal formulations, and an Ayurvedic expert is as likely to recommend specific spices to include in your diet as to suggest herbal supplements for you to take.
One of the basic tenets of Ayurvedic medicine is to try and include all six tastes—sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, and astringent—at every main meal. Spices are a convenient, flavorful way of including all six tastes in your cooking.
Spices enhance digestion
Unfortunately, digestion problems are widespread in America. Some digestive disorders, such as acid indigestion, are obvious. Headaches, disorders in bowel movements such as diarrhea or constipation, or a feeling of discomfort in the stomach after a meal are other symptoms that can be tied to poor digestion.
Eating all the healthy, wholesome foods in the world is of little use if your body cannot absorb the nutrients and put them to use building healthy body tissue.
From the perspective of Ayurveda, most imbalances in the body arise from poor digestion. When the food we eat is not digested properly, ama—the by-product of poor digestion and metabolism—builds up, clogging the microchannels of the body. Not only does this further block the efficient flow of nutrients to different parts of the body, it weakens the immune system and hampers the flow of wastes out of the body, creating a fertile breeding ground for disease and infection to take hold.
Most spices enhance digestion, and that's one of the reasons spices are revered in Ayurvedic cuisine. Additionally, they help remove accumulated ama, making them valuable additions to your daily diet.
Spices are like herbs; they work gently and gradually, with the benefits adding up over time with no dangerous side effects. Ayurvedic physicians recommend resisting the temptation to take your spices as nutraceuticals, where the so-called "active" ingredient is isolated and put in a pill or a capsule. Take them as nature intended, and you will reap the benefits for years to come.
Top tips for cooking with spices
- Turmeric, cumin, coriander, fennel, mint, asafetida (hing), black pepper, dried powdered ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cayenne are among the most potent Ayurvedic spices that enhance digestion and metabolism, cleanse ama from the body, and help prevent digestive disorders such as gas and bloating.
- If you are new to Ayurvedic cooking, try our Maharishi Ayurveda Churnas (ready-to-use spice mixes) formulated especially to be Vata, Pitta, or Kapha
- Many spices release their flavors and aromas best when sautéed in ghee (clarified butter) or oil, and some when they are dry-roasted. Ghee helps transport the therapeutic value of spices to the different parts of the body, so Ayurveda generally recommends including a ghee-spice mixture in at least one meal of the day.
- Be nimble when sautéing or roasting spices, as they tend to burn quickly. Remove from heat when aromas are released and continue stirring or shaking to prevent burning.
- Most spices are potent; a little goes a long way. You want the spices to enhance the flavors of foods, not overpower the whole dish. Start with a little, and gradually add more as desired.
- When blending several spices in a dish, experiment to find combinations you like. Be adventurous!
- Look for organic, non-irradiated spices.
- Store spices in airtight containers away from heat and light.
Standout spices: Turmeric, cumin and fennel
Turmeric: The golden spice
Turmeric is used widely in Ayurvedic medicine and cooking. It contains the flavonoid curcumin, which is known to have anti-inflammatory properties. This all-around super spice helps detoxify the liver, maintain healthy cholesterol levels, fight allergies, stimulate digestion, boost immunity, and enhance the complexion. It is also an antioxidant. Ayurveda recognizes turmeric as a heating spice, contributing bitter, pungent, and astringent tastes.
When used in tiny quantities, this bright, yellow-orange spice imparts a rich color to cooked white rice, potatoes, or yellow lentils. Just add it to the water when you’re cooking rice or lentils, or sauté it in some ghee and add it before serving. Turmeric combines well with other spices such as cumin, coriander, cayenne pepper, and fennel. Remember: turmeric can stain fabrics and other materials, so handle it carefully!
Cumin: A delicious digestive
Cumin is popular in Indian, Mexican, and Middle Eastern cuisines. According to Ayurveda, it is a cooling spice . It aids digestion and helps flush toxins out of the body.
Cumin can be used either as whole seeds or ground, raw, or dry-roasted. Both sautéing and roasting make the aroma and flavor of cumin come alive. Cumin combines well with a wide range of other spices, including turmeric, ground fennel, ground coriander, ground dry ginger, and cinnamon.
Fennel: A cooling stomach soother
Fennel is cooling spice that’s extremely good for digestion. In India, it’s common practice to eat a few fennel seeds after a meal. Fennel seeds have a mildly sweet taste, and ground fennel works very well in sauces of all kinds. The seeds can also be sautéed in ghee (clarified butter) and added to vegetable dishes.
These are just three gems from the vast treasure-chest of Ayurvedic spices. Ayurvedic spices are not only delicious, they also have a balancing effect on the physiology. Add them to your meals to enjoy their aromas and flavors, while supporting digestion and helping to move ama from your body.
For more information on other Ayurvedic spices, and for informative articles on the Ayurvedic approach to diet and digestion, see our Ayurvedic recipes.
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