As human beings, our fallible nature lends credence to the character of our species. We can be notorious creatures of habit. I consider myself to be amongst the ranks of the habitually stilted and have tended, throughout life, to hold on dearly to the customs and learned behavior that came with the knocks, bumps and bruises of childhood. Especially when it came to food.
One of the many ritualistic beliefs that I found difficult to release my kung fu-like grip on was the notion (and juvenile fear) that overly-enhanced foods was overkill and far more robust than my tiny, inexperienced palate could handle. As I grew into womanhood, this trepidation followed me like a creepy shadow in a dark alleyway.
The Fear of Intense Flavors
The savory characteristics of spices, herbs and seasonings intimidated me. I grew up in a household where my mother, the primary cook and the one most qualified to put a serious slap-somebody hurting on a meal, cranked up the flavors in her food with salt, fat, oil and sugar. I say this a) lovingly, b) with the caveat that my mom was an excellent cook, c) I would trade nothing for the sumptuous meals that she fed us, and d) I still hold many of her favorite recipes near and dear to my heart.
Mom was a product of the south, where it went without saying that that was just how food was expected to be done . . . no ifs, ands or buts. More to the point, if you couldn’t taste that one crucial ingredient that made everyone lick their lips while reaching for a tall glass of Kool-Aid—namely, salt—in some form or fashion, it just wasn’t seasoned enough. Grab the Morton’s, I’m going in for round two!
While there were always tiny jars full of assorted spice varieties in our kitchen, I assumed they were there purely for their colorful aesthetic appeal. I had no idea people actually used them in cooking. It wasn’t until I was out in the world on my own, blazing a fiery and sometimes bumpy path through life, that I actually cracked open a nondescript spice jar, took a whiff of the aromatic beauty nestled within, and fell immediately and intensely in love with the secrets of the ancient treasure.
Other cultures—the people of India come immediately to mind—have been in on this culinary secret for ages while others rely on subtle notes and perhaps a dash of salt to infuse a tiny spark in food. Isn’t it time we caught up?
Most people use spices and/or herbs in one form or another every day, but do they really appreciate the beauty of what they’re shaking, tossing or mixing into their favorite dishes?
Despite the economic conditions this country has endured during the last few years, the spice market has not been affected by this downturn, according to “Spices and Seasonings: A Global Strategic Business Report, ” a comprehensive market report by Global Industry Analysts, Inc. When the economy takes a nosedive, Americans tend to hold onto their hard-earned dollars more fervently and opt to eat at home rather than dine out. While this is good for Joe and Jane Smith, it does not bode well for restaurateurs. But that’s a-whole-nother story.
Nutrition without the Bulk and Calories
To expand the flavors of our food means to expand our palate. While some proclivities may tend to lean more towards the less full-bodied fare—french fries sans salt, boiled chicken, dry rice cakes, etc.—imagine how much tastier a dish can be simply by adding a pinch of chili pepper, a dash of ginger or a smidgen of marjoram.
In general, herbs come from the leaves of a plant while spices are derived from seeds, bark, root or fruit. One of the best features of nature’s bounty is the added nutritional value without the burden of empty calories. Wouldn’t you rather eat a nicely-seasoned turkey cutlet over one smothered in high-fat, artery-clogging gravy?
In addition to their culinary enhancement, herbs and spices also have health advantages. When used at their peak of freshness, you not only gain the benefit of more robust flavor, but the risk of degradation of active compounds in the spices and herbs is lessened considerably.
A quick search in Google can lead you to a cornucopia of information on a variety of benefits derived from the use of herbs and spices. While the list below is not held out as pure medical fact, there are many who believe that . . .
. . . oregano is a superb antioxidant
. . . saffron has a mood-calming effect
. . . cinnamon boosts immunity and reduces blood sugar levels
. . . turmeric inhibits cancer cell growth and reduces joint inflammation
. . . dill relieves gas and nausea
. . . coriander helps relieve headaches
. . . red pepper flakes helps satiate your appetite so you’ll feel full
. . . caraway relieves bloating
. . . ginger helps to soothe nausea
. . . basil is good for digestion
. . . thyme can ease cramps
. . . paprika is high in Vitamin C and has anti-inflammatory properties
. . . garlic lowers cholesterol
. . . sage increases brain function and acts as an antioxidant
Whether these examples of reputed health benefits are medically sound is a question for those better qualified in the art of healing. However, one thing I know for certain is that these same herbs and spices, and many more, add zest to my everyday life and the foods that I eat. I, for one, will choose flavor over bland any day. What about you?