As a meat-and-potatoes nation for the better part of three centuries, to go so far as to choose authentic Indian, Middle Eastern or Thai cuisine is a milestone for many. Throughout the U.S., more and more people have begun embracing the idea of using an exotic curry to spice up their food.
In the above-listed cuisines, curry is practically fundamental. In India, for instance, while there are more than a billion people who speak around 122 different languages and often have vastly diverse cultural differences, all of them love curry. Organic Facts notes:
“Curry powder is native to South Asian cuisines, but was popularized in the 19th and 20th century to the tables of the western world due to the mass exportation of the powder as a condiment after it was discovered by troops and other colonial visitors to the East.
In the mid-20th century, Indian cuisine became more globally popular, so curry, and subsequently curry powder, became widely available.”1
Still, it’s possible there are some who have only a murky idea of what curry is. Many would say it’s a spice, but it turns out it’s actually a collection of spices.
While the word “curry” means “sauce,” the different combinations of spices and the exact number may vary from recipe to recipe. Curry powder, which you can put together yourself, makes a ready-made foundation for innumerable dishes, and constitutes the base for different sauce flavors. Organic Facts says curry powder is:
“A popular spice mix that has a number of valuable health benefits, including the prevention of cancer, protection against heart disease, reduce Alzheimer’s disease symptoms, ease pain and inflammation, boost bone health, protect the immune system from bacterial infections and increase the liver’s ability to remove toxins from the body.”
Some curries include herbs, seeds and/or vegetables, such as sweet basil, garlic, red pepper, bay leaves and the seeds of black pepper, mustard, fenugreek and fennel. The most basic list of spices used for a good curry mixture usually includes:
Turmeric: Inflammation-Fighting, Cancer-Combating Potential
One of the most important ingredients in curry powder is turmeric, which for centuries has been a mainstay for treating inflammation, notably in Ayurvedic medicine.
One of its most potent compounds is curcumin, which gives curry its vibrant yellow hue and promotes healing in numerous ways. For bone health and the prevention of osteoporosis, this spice is very beneficial:
“Although human testing is still in its early stages, significant amounts of animal testing have shown turmeric to greatly increase the speed of bone regrowth, connectivity and repair, while reducing signs of bone loss by up to 50 [percent]. This could mean a very powerful boost to your bones, particularly as you age.”
Another benefit of curcumin is its ability to combat Alzheimer’s disease. It does this by stimulating your immune system to eliminate the amino acids that make up plaque that free radicals dump into your brain’s neural pathways, consequently decreasing cognitive decline.
Curcumin has also been studied for the many ways it also affects cancer cells. It has chemopreventive effects on stomach and colon cancers in animal studies, and inhibits the growth of Helicobacter pylori, a group 1 (read: definite) carcinogen.
Anticancer activity may actually begin the moment turmeric hits your tongue, as studies indicate that “nanocurcumin,” a “polymeric nanoparticle-encapsulated” form of curcumin activated by human saliva is particularly effective in preventing pancreatic cancer.
For this reason alone, scientists encourage people to increase their turmeric intake, even by taking it in supplement form.
Cinnamon, Cloves and Ginger: Not Just For Baking
• Cinnamon, a common ingredient in cookies, breads and other culinary endeavors, comes in two varieties: the cheaper cassia version that is easy to find, and “true” cinnamon from Ceylon.
True cinnamon is helpful in treating diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. It also boosts brain activity, including your memory, your ability to focus and your visual-motor response speed.
In a study several years ago, scientists agreed this was especially true for elderly patients, including those with imminent cognitive decline.
• Cloves provide the highest percentage of manganese of any food. In just 2 teaspoons, you get 127 percent of the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI), for strong bones, good skin, blood sugar control and protection from free radical damage, according to the George Mateljan Foundation, a not-for-profit foundation dedicated to helping you cook and eat for optimum health.
Sweet and aromatic, making this spice a wonderful addition to hot wassail, cloves contain eugenol, an oil which can protect your body from absorbing toxins from your environment, help prevent colon cancer and exert anti-inflammatory capabilities. It also contains high amounts of iron, fiber and vitamin K.
• Ginger may be worth its weight in gold if you ever find yourself suffering from motion sickness. One or two capsules or even a cup of strong tea made from fresh ginger root may help. Studies show it’s even used for chemotherapy-induced vomiting and nausea in cancer patients, and for pregnant moms.
The key ingredient is gingerol, a natural oil containing antioxidants that fight inflammation. It can either be used topically or as an extract to ease osteoarthritis symptoms.
Studies also say ginger can help lower cholesterol. In one study, subjects took 3 grams a day for 45 days, which decreased their markers significantly.
This fragrant spice also helps slough the lining of your digestive tract, which prevents bloating and constipation, simultaneously lessening the time waste hangs around in your colon and opening the door to free radical damage.
Cumin: Improved Digestion and Brain-Boosting Compounds
Excellent for digestion, cumin first starts its work in your nose, because the scent kick-starts saliva enzymes in your mouth, which is the first step to digesting foods. Believe it or not, a single teaspoon of cumin can boost weight loss by 50 percent.
The functions performed by cumin in the body are truly remarkable. The list of pharmacological actions is a long one, and includes its ability to protect your stomach and renal system.
It’s anti-diabetic, anticancer, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. Traditional uses in the Middle East and Asia include its use for asthma to rheumatism. According to a study in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice:
“Cumin, as one of these medicinal plants, contains more than 100 different chemicals, including essential fatty acids and volatile oil … Hypocholesterolemic effect of cumin could be partly attributed to its glycoside saponins which prevent cholesterol absorption and increase its fetal excretion …
Moreover, cumin seeds have a substantial amount of … phytosterols [that may] displace cholesterol from intestinal micelles, reducing available cholesterol.”
Perhaps because it’s a mainstay for spicing up Mexican dishes to the perfect degree for your palate, this food also serves as a gas alleviator; that is to say it helps release it so it’s not so painful (for you, anyway). It’s also a natural laxative with anti-microbial and anti-fungal capabilities.
Cumin has seemingly contradictory relaxant and stimulant properties. Its essential oil is described by multiple sites as able to produce a state of “hypnotic tranquility,” perhaps because it’s linked to brain stimulation and mental clarity.
Compounds in cumin may slow the neurotransmitter acetylecholine’s natural degrading process that aging brains experience.
The compound thymoquinone in cumin has been studied extensively as a cancer killer, and is known for its ability to suppress cancer of the colon, blood, liver, prostate, breast, lung, kidney, cervix and skin.
Coriander: Cilantro Seeds Are Naturally Antiseptic and Antibiotic
When cilantro “goes to seed,” the plants produce an attractive crown of about 20 little round kernels. When these are harvested, you can ground them to add to your curry mix or, of course, you can purchase ground or whole coriander.
Although you wouldn’t consume a whole ounce of these seeds in a day or even a week, these measurements give you an idea of its nutritional value.
For instance, that ounce contains 47 percent of the fiber you need in a day — 8 percent in a single tablespoon. Coriander is also an excellent source of calcium, iron, magnesium and manganese. Similar to cumin, coriander helps relieve gas even while it prevents diarrhea, as well as nausea. Other advantages for adding this spice to your curry mixture are that it helps lower blood pressure and heal problem skin.
Oxidative stress brought on by lead toxicity has been alleviated by coriander in at least one study.16 Coriander is also excellent to offset food poisoning. A handful of coriander seeds is said to have twice the potency of the best-selling salmonella antibiotic due to the compound dodecenal, and it tastes better.17
Cardamom: The Aromatic Seeds of the Ginger Plant
Like every other ancient spice, cardamom has its own distinctive flavor. Its tiny black seeds, so tiny that grinding 20 of them nets just over a teaspoon, come in a pod that emits a sweetish, camphor-like aroma. There are two main varieties: one is either red, black or white; the pale green version is known as “true cardamom.”
You may have tasted Scandinavian pastries with cardamom sprinkled on top. The seeds are also made into a popular tea and, oddly, constitute a Middle Eastern sausage ingredient. On its own, cardamom is effective for preventing gum disease and soothing a sore throat, and is useful as a breath freshener.
One of the most expensive spices to purchase, cardamom has impressive health benefits. Other cardamom benefits include its potential for decreasing blood pressure, as well as heart disease, heart attack, atherosclerosis and stroke risks. One study reported:
“That small cardamom effectively reduces blood pressure, enhances fibrinolysis and improves antioxidant status, without significantly altering blood lipids and fibrinogen levels in stage 1 hypertensive individuals.”19
Another study noted cardamom’s “remarkable” ability to “significantly enhance the cytotoxic activity of natural killer cells, indicating their potential anti-cancer effects.” Compounds in cardamom promote a healthy immune system, regulate inflammatory responses and can even be cancer protective.20
Curry Recipe Ideas for Greenhorns and Old Hands
With coconut milk, olive oil, garlic and chopped basil, you can make an easy and delicious coconut-curry chicken sauce.21 A yummy red Thai curry dish can also be made using coconut milk, with the addition of peanut butter, fish sauce, red curry paste and lime juice.22
Caveats in the Use of Curry Powder
Organic Facts reports a few things to take note of when using curry:
“Curry powder is a well-known anti-coagulant, so if you already take blood thinners, you should consult with your doctor to eliminate any dangers of excessive bleeding.
Also, some research has shown curry powder to be an irritant to the gallbladder or to people with preexisting gallbladder conditions. It stimulates gallbladder contractions, which are good for people with healthy gallbladders, but can be very painful for those with gallstones or obstructed bile ducts.”