Spice is nice - and healing too.
by Michael Braunstein
Columbus wanted it. Queen Isabella thought enough of it to send Chris out in primitive sailing ships over uncharted waters to bring it back to Spain. Frank Herbert used the term to describe an ambergris-like effluent of the giant worms of Duneworld. Spices. Wars have been fought over them. They were the basis of power for the greatest empire this world has ever known when the East India Trading Company was the commercial arm of an English fleet that controlled their trade world-wide. And the mythical Magi brought them as gifts to the baby Jesus. They must be special. And they are.
Spices can be seeds, flowers, bark, roots, flower parts, leaves, resins, saps or other plant products. They all have the historical connotation of exotic origins. And it is true of most spices. The Asian, Indian sub-continent, tropical islands and the Far East were where most spices were first cultivated. Our trade routes from Europe throughout the Mediterranean on to the East were founded on the search for spices.
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The trade and use of spices elicits visions of exotic places and far-off camel caravans packing commodities from oasis to oasis. A spice is powerful by definition. Look how little is used to provide a zest or flavor to life. Use too much and the goal is overshot, the spoils ruined.
Put on the plate, there is more to spice than meets the nose or the palate. There is further reason that spices were so precious prior to the petrol-age of easy transportation. Spices are regarded to have special healing powers as well as flavoring functions.
Everyone knows that herbs are the hottest thing in healthcare. Five years ago you would be hard-pressed to find echinacea, goldenseal or ginseng anywhere but your health food store. Today, you find a broad range of herbal supplements at convenience stores and truck stops, pharmacies and major markets. Herbs are commonly recognized as adjuncts to healing. But often overlooked are the many spices that traditional medical systems consider just as valuable to our health.
Spices in general are a difficult category to itemize. About the only characteristic that gilds the group is the fact that they are always plant material of some sort. Spices can be seeds, flowers, bark, roots, flower parts, leaves, resins, saps or other plant products. They all have the historical connotation of exotic origins. And it is true of most spices. The Asian, Indian sub-continent, tropical islands and the Far East were where most spices were first cultivated. Our trade routes from Europe throughout the Mediterranean on to the East were founded on the search for spices. Part of what made them so expensive was their rarity. Eventually, species of spices were smuggled out of the exotic locales and those that could be grown closer to the demanding appetites of Western cultures were. But even with the proliferation of growing locations, production costs keep prices relatively high.
Initially, however, one of the reasons spices were treasured was the medicinal qualities attributed to them. Consider the use of the myrrh that the Magi brought as a gift.
- Myrrh: Myrrh is a resin that is collected from the small spaces under the bark of a bush native only to the barren deserts of the Middle East. The resin is a concentration of elixirs from the plant with many exotic properties. Ancient texts refer to its use as a medicine, antiseptic and preservative. Modern research has shown that it stimulates the production of white blood cells, boosts the immune system and is an excellent way to promote oral health. Mouthwashes and toothpaste found in natural health stores often contain myrrh as an active ingredient. At the time of the birth of Jesus, myrrh was one of the most expensive substances that could be collected. Mixed with other ingredients, it can be a potent topical antiseptic salve. Myrrh has been found to fight gum disease, is recommended as a gargle in cases of mumps, and helps fight tooth decay.
As a spice, myrrh is rarely used as a flavoring but falls into one very specific characteristic of all spices: it is useful in small quantities and is relatively expensive. No wonder it was one of the gifts the Magi brought to honor the Christ child.
- Saffron: Saffron may be the queen of spices as far as premium cost is concerned. True saffron rings the register between 200 and 300 dollars an ounce! It is grown only in India, with a derivative type grown in Spain and Iran.
Most people first learn about saffron from Indian food like "saffron rice." Saffron is indeed a primary ingredient in many Indian dishes. The big tip-off with saffron is the color. It imparts a brilliant yellowish hue and a subtle, aromatic flavor. It's one of those spices that it seems no matter how much you use, the flavor will remain distinct but subtle. But fortunately, you don't have to use much.
The major reason for saffron's high cost is the production process. Saffron is collected from the stigma of a species of crocus flower native to Asia Minor. For the non-botanist, the stigma of a flower is that tiny point inside the bloom that receives the pollen. The saffron crocus has exactly three of those. They are thread-like in size and appearance, the best variety being reddish in color.
Here's where the cost comes. Saffron is the ground powder of the stigmas. It takes 14,000 stigmas to produce about an ounce of saffron spice. They have to be handled by hand. No wonder Donovan sang, "I'm just mad about Saffron."
In traditional Indian medicine (ayurveda), saffron is used as an aphrodisiac, a cure for arthritis, asthma, to reduce fever, healing the liver and combating alcoholism. Many other applications are recounted, but those are ones that modern Indian medicine is currently investigating. Unani or the Islamic medical system, also uses saffron as a natural medicine. Other sources suggest that an active ingredient in saffron can lower blood cholesterol too.
- Cinnamon: What a common and elegant spice cinnamon is. It's harvested as the bark of a tree initially cultivated in Ceylon. Always a favorite when it comes to toast or topping hot chocolate, cinnamon is a healer too. This spice falls in the category herbalists call a "warming aromatic." Cinnamon has the effect of warming the body. It's what we call "spicy." Using common sense, we realize that a "spicy" spice heats up the body and promotes circulation. Cinnamon is one that does that. It also stimulates digestive processes and aids in that. Cultures throughout the ages have used cinnamon to fight a cold. It is a mild expectorant, meaning that it "opens things up" and helps you cough out congested lungs. When concentrated as an oil, it has been used topically to treat bee and insect stings.
Of course we know cinnamon adds a wonderful flavor, but also think of it the next time you have a cold. In place of drugs and medications with side-effects, try a cup of hot water with cinnamon, a little fresh grated ginger root and some lemon. Your sinuses will clear and your cold will disappear.
- Clove: Cloves are just what they appear to be to the naked eye: the dried up flower bud of the clove plant. Pungent, sharp and powerfully aromatic, cloves enhance our meals in fruit dishes, desserts and candied meats like hams. But anyone who has ever had a toothache while away from their dentist knows that clove oil is one of the most powerful anesthetics available for dental pain. Just a drop on a cavity can bring relief as instantly as novocaine. And it's a proven antiseptic too. Some people find lightly chewing on a whole clove a wonderful breath-freshener as well.
- Cayenne: Cayenne, known also as capsicum or plain red pepper, is a powerhouse of healing properties. Cayenne defines the word spicy. When you see "spicy" on a menu, you know what that means: "hot!" And that is the characteristic of cayenne. Yet it could be as much a wonder drug as aspirin was once considered.
Cayenne is useful in alleviating debilitating arthritis pain. Capsaicin, as the active ingredient is known, is even a main ingredient in expensive over-the-counter and prescription pain medications. Why spend the extra bucks? Go to the source, the pepper itself. Some recommend cayenne as powdered in capsules, others suggest ointments.
Cayenne also stimulates the immune system and relieves congestion from colds. Next time you try chicken soup, make it spicy! Just read what Dr. James Duke lists as ailments cayenne has a use for treating: arthritis, backache, bunions, heart disease, ulcers, carpal tunnel, emphysema, fever, herpes, indigestion, pain, psoriasis, shingles and there's more. Notice a common link. They all can benefit from improved circulation and endorphin production, two of the primary things that capsicum promotes.
- Cardamom: Cardamom is another rather exotic spice from the Far East. It is powdered from the seeds of the plant and used in medicines and spices. Cardamom is high in a chemical known as cineole. This is also an expectorant, something that helps induce a productive cough to clear the lungs. Obviously, such can be helpful in addressing symptoms that involve the lungs. Sources suggest trying it to breathe easier in allergies and emphysema attacks. It's also identified as helpful in relaxing digestion and fighting a nervous stomach or irritable bowel syndrome.
Cardamom is a soothing tonic that makes a calming night-time beverage when stirred into a cup of warm milk along with a little ginger. It is a favorite of ayurveda and a common additive to Indian cuisine. It also leaves the breath fresh and the gums healthy.
- Ginger: Ginger is my favorite when it comes to the islands, both Gilligan's and the Keys. Personal experience is what counts and I've had it.
When diving in Florida, the best places are along the Florida Keys. Trouble is, even in rather mild winds, the ocean swell can be daunting due to the shallow waters. This can mean a pretty unpleasant boat trip to the dive site. One can spend the whole time leaning over the deck rail "screaming at submarines" as the colorful term says. Dramamine is the most common over-the-counter motion sickness remedy. It's somewhat effective. I've used it. Trouble is, it's side-effective too. Dramamine can cause hallucinations and convulsions according to the literature and it makes you drowsy besides. Who wants to dive drowsy? Fortunately, there is an alternative.
Fresh ginger root has been found to be more effective than Dramamine in preventing motion sickness. And the only side effects it has are good ones. It freshens your breath. It improves digestion and it has long been used to combat depression. I've tried it too and I won't go back to Dramamine. Unless, of course, I'm just dying for a good, old-fashioned hallucination at 50 feet.
A GRAIN OF SALT
When it comes to your health, remember, you are your own best counsel. There is a time for every seasoning and spice. Use your best intuition and you will succeed. Stay in tune with you and your nature. Health is a natural fact.