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By Nadia Marshall
This is a copy of Nadia’s Nutrition Column for Nova Magazine, published in July 2015
Herbs and spices like parsley, garlic, basil, cloves and cinnamon didn’t just become kitchen spices because they taste great and add incredible flavour to meals. They also became valuable culinary resources because they have a medicinal effect on digestion that has been observed by herbalists and traditional medicine practitioners for thousands of years (in the case of Ayurveda, over 5000 years!).
Spices and herbs are used liberally in Ayurvedic cooking but here are six that are held in particularly high regard for their digestion-promoting benefits. If eaten as part of your daily meals, you should begin to notice a cumulative benefit to your appetite, ability to digest food and even to your cravings. These spices are appropriate for all body types described in Ayurveda including Vata (Air/Space), Pitta (Fire/Water) and Kapha (Water/Earth), although ginger and hing may aggravate Pitta if used in excess.
In Ayurveda, Ginger is known as the universal medicine benefiting everybody and all diseases.
Digestion benefits: Ginger helps to cleanse toxins and has an enkindling effect on the digestive fire, increasing the secretion of digestive enzymes. It is particularly helpful in cases of nausea (morning sickness, travel sickness), hiccups, flatulence and griping. Ginger also helps to promote healthy circulation and alleviates coughs, colds and breathing difficulties.
How to use it in your kitchen: Have ¼ tsp fresh grated ginger in warm water with a squeeze of lemon first thing in the morning before breakfast and add fresh ginger to curries, daals, kicharee etc for a little extra heat (in place of chilli)
The Sanskrit name for Cumin, Jiraka, literally means ‘promoting digestion’.
Digestion benefits: Cumin helps to increase the absorption of nutrients and is one of the best spices for sluggish digestion. It aids in the cleansing of toxins and helps with gassy indigestion including bloating, gurgling and belching. It also facilitates the absorption of water in the large intestines so is useful in the case of diarrhoea.
How to use it in your kitchen: Dry roast or fry whole cumin seeds in oil and add to any meal. To make a great digestion-balancing spice mix, grind equal parts cumin seeds, fennel seeds and coriander seeds to add to most meals or even drink as a herbal tea any time of the day (1/2 tsp in a cup of boiled water).
Fennel’s Sanskrit name means ‘sweet one’ and it is known for aromatically warming digestion.
Digestion benefits: Fennel has the special quality of enkindling the digestive fire and improving appetite without aggravating Pitta, due to its sweet post-digestive effect. It is antispasmodic so is specifically used in Ayurveda for reducing lower abdominal pain from bowel tension and overeating. It is also very effective at reducing flatulence (it even works on dogs - we add it to our dog’s dinner every night!).
How to use it in your kitchen: Add whole fennel seeds or freshly ground fennel to virtually any meal; it is incredibly versatile. If you’re suffering from a severe case of overeating, bloating or flatulence, simply chew ½ teaspoon of whole fennel seeds or make yourself a strong fennel tea for instant relief.
4) Coriander (seeds & fresh)
Coriander simultaneously soothes an irritated digestive system, stimulates appetite and lifts the spirits.
Digestion benefits: Coriander is one of the few kitchen spices that is cooling so it is a wonderful daily addition to meals for people suffering from excess heat, acidity, reflux or IBS. It is an appetite stimulant, toxin digester, worm killer and alleviates flatulence, griping and bloating.
How to use it in your kitchen: You can use fresh coriander leaves or ground coriander seeds in almost everything. It has a gentle, earthy flavour so is suitable across many cultural cuisines. If you need some extra cooling down, you can prepare coriander seed tea and sip it throughout the day.
Turmeric is prized for purifying and removing stagnation from our most important digestive organ, the liver.
Digestion benefits: Turmeric enkindles digestion, calms inflammation and reduces the build up of undigested food waste in the gastrointestinal tract. It helps to decrease pathogenic bacteria in the intestines, aids the treatment of dyspepsia and stomach ulcers, aids the digestion of protein and has even been shown to help prevent bowel cancer.
How to use it in your kitchen: Use ½-1tsp of ground turmeric powder daily in soups, casseroles, daals, hotpots, curries and other one-pot meals (don’t overdo it or your meal can become quite bitter! If you feel a ‘fizz’ on your tongue, you’ve used too much). Or, you can have your daily dose in warm milk before bed (1/4 tsp of turmeric to ½ cup milk, ½ cup water).
Hing is a very strong smelling, but also very calming herb used to sooth spasms in the body. In its pure form it comes as small hard resin rocks but is usually cut with wheat or rice flour into a powder.
Digestion benefits: Hing (or asafoetida) is incredibly useful for making legumes and pulses easier to digest and less gas forming. It strengthens digestion generally but is particularly good for vata indigestion, helping to treat bloating, flatulence, abdominal pain, spasms and belching. It can also assist with gut flora imbalances (like Candida) and kills worms.
How to use it in your kitchen: Always add a tiny pinch (1/8 tsp) of hing powder to boiling water when cooking legumes or pulses. It can also be used in place of garlic and onions if you are avoiding them for any reason because it imparts a similar flavour. You won’t find hing at the supermarket, only at Asian or Indian grocers. Be sure to store it in an airtight glass jar so it doesn’t stink out your whole cupboard!
So these are my top six favourite Ayurvedic digestion-promoting spices but when stocking up your spice cupboard, you may also want to buy black mustard seeds, cinnamon quills, cardamom pods and clove buds - all good staples!
Finally, here are some important tips for storing and using your spices...
1) Instead of buying your spices from the supermarket, it is worthwhile investing in a set of small glass jars and going to your local wholefood store to stock up on organic whole spices.
2) Next, grab yourself an electric coffee grinder and grind your whole spices on demand, when you’re cooking with them (dry turmeric and ginger are the exceptions - you should get these pre-ground).
Do these two things and you will be completely blown away by how different these freshly ground spices taste and smell! And, if their flavour is more potent, their active constituents are more potent so they will be even better medicine for your digestion!
Agni - the digestive fire.
Ama or Aama - undigested food waste, toxins.
Ojas- the foundation of our immune system and longevity.
Dhatus - the tissues of the body.
Srotas - the channels of the body.
Vata - the air/ether
intelligence in the body.
Pitta- the fire/water
intelligence in the body.
Kapha- the water/earth intelligence in the body.
Sattva- the quality of purity, intelligence, peace and love.
Rajas- the quality of
turbulence and activity.
Tamas- the quality of
dullness, darkness and inertia.
Rasa - the taste of a food (Sweet, Sour, Salty, Pungent, Bitter, Astringent)
Virya - second level of digestion (either Heating or Cooling)
Vipaka - third level of digestion, the deep taste of a food (can be Sweet, Sour or Pungent)
Prabhav - the 'special effect' of a food or herb/spice
Rasa - also the name for plasma tissue
Rakta - blood tissue
Mamsa - muscle tissue
Meda - fat tissue
Asthi - bone tissue
Majja - nerve & bone marrow tissue
Shukra - sexual reproductive tissue