• By Natasha MacAller. Photography by Manja Wachsmuth. (Murdoch Books)Source: Murdoch Books
From the everyday spices you have in your cupboard to the more exotic you seek out at specialty stores, Spice Health Heroes explores the culinary, nutritional and medicinal world of spice.
Natasha MacAller

14 Dec 2016 - 12:19 PM  UPDATED 14 Dec 2016 - 12:19 PM

Historically, spices have been used throughout the ages as aromatic flavourings for food and as perfumes to sweeten the scent of battle-weary knights when they were in attendance to the king. However, more importantly, spices have been used throughout the ages as medicine, to heal the body and extend life. Different spices have different talents and can be used to warm, cleanse, restore, soothe, boost energy levels and support the vital body-balancing immune system. Spices are concentrated full of phytonutrients (nutrients and chemicals in addition to vitamins and minerals), which, while not vital for keeping you alive, may help prevent disease in addition to keeping your body systems working at their best.

Spices used as medicine remain relevant as natural sources of active compounds for treating human conditions or disorders, including immune-imbalanced and inflammatory diseases and cancers. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of current cancer-research projects investigating the promising potential of medicinal plants to discover new possible therapies utilizing complementary medicines that lack the toxic effects of chemotherapeutic drugs and may have the same, or better, curative effects as current chemical therapies. 

Spices have been used for so many centuries not only as flavour enhancers but as medicine as well. There must be some benefit; there is something more to spices than simply taste.

Spice Health Heroes is not a diet book, nor is it a medical treatise. (I am not a doctor, but rather a ballerina-turned-chef with a passionate interest in health and, particularly, in spices.) However, it does include contributions from a number of revered international medical doctors, who are weighing in on the promising research, trials and conclusions relating to the medicinal uses of these 30 spice health heroes, which it is thought may relieve, assist and have genuine benefit to health and wellbeing.

There are also contributions here from 21 lauded international chefs, whose spice stories and recipes began from their very first taste of a spice then developed over years of cooking, creating and tasting into their own individual spice signature.

These two professions, culinary and medical, have come together and are working as a team to bring attention to the simple fact that good food equals good health. Culinary medicine is not about following a diet, nor is it about removing entire food groups from your life, but rather it consists in eating fresh food that is free from a long list of artificial ingredients: just simple, wholesome, fresh food, full of flavour, health-giving properties – and spice.

‘Spices have been used for so many centuries not only as flavour enhancers but as medicine as well. There must be some benefit; there is something more to spices than simply taste’, suggests Luigi Fontana, MD, PhD, Professor of Medicine at Washington University and at University of Brescia, Italy. Dr Fontana is a very lean man. This is not so surprising considering one of his areas of study: calorie restriction (CR). ‘From yeast to mice, if you reduce calorie intake (without causing starvation), animals are healthier and live much longer! We are now studying this in humans.’ As with many matters relating to diet, Dr Fontana and his colleagues are learning that things are never simple. ‘We are finding that it is not just CR that gives benefit. It is an interaction of many factors, one of which is the friendly bacteria that live in our gut, the microbiome. For example, we recently published a paper showing that mice that are 1) fed turmeric, and 2) contain the microbiome of a human from Bangladesh show an increase in the amount of time the body has to absorb nutrients, compared to mice that are identical except that they have a microbiome from a human from a European country. It is not just turmeric that gives this benefit, it is the interaction of turmeric with the healthful flora that live within us!’

The single most important tip for ground spices is to buy only what you need for a few months.

Storing and using spices

Do you open your spice cupboard to a collection of dusty tins, dog-eared paper boxes and no-longer-see-through small glass jars of reddish or brownish powders of… what is that? Spice? Is there any smell to them? Check that neither the colour nor the scent of the spices has faded: if it has, toss it out. Don’t keep spices you want to use on a rack above the stovetop: they will perish within weeks. Keeping spices in tightly sealed glass jars will prevent the volatile oils from becoming humid and oxidizing. Stored in a cool dark place, whole spices, including leaves and flowers, will keep for 1–2 years, seeds and roots for 2–3 years and ground spices for 6–12 months. 

The single most important tip for ground spices is to buy only what you need for a few months. For the best value for money, purchase spices whole, then toast and grind them as you need them. Freshness is more important than origin, but if possible, choose organic, as many spices come from the tropical climates over long distances and non-organic ones are most likely to have been sprayed or irradiated to prevent pests and extend shelf life.

To warm and release their volatile oils, toast and swirl whole spices over low heat in a small dry pan until they release their scent, then allow to cool before grinding in a mortar and pestle or electric spice grinder. If you need to replace fresh spices with dried ones in a recipe, as a good rule of thumb, allow 1 teaspoon of dried for 1 tablespoon of chopped fresh (though in the case of dried sage, use only ½ teaspoon). The fragrance of fresh spice will fill the kitchen and your soul with its intoxicating aroma.


Cook the book


1. Garam masala bastilla 

This rich but vegetarian take on a medieval ‘greyte pye’ includes an unorthodox garam masala that is really more like a medieval spice blend.

2. California girl prawn curry with sambals 

The scent of a curry cooking was mysterious but alluring to us kids and we knew those little dishes – ‘sambals’ – of coconut, toasted chopped peanuts, diced bananas, cashew nuts, olives, pineapple, golden raisins, jars of Major Grey’s, with ‘Sunday-best’ spoons placed carefully aside, would soon appear on the table. What a treat! We would pile plates high with rice, a little curry, mild chutney and lots of our favourite sambals.


3. Swiss berry quilt cake

Always a popular light dessert during long Indian Summer days, this is a low-gluten and, excluding the lemon verbena sabayon, dairy-free dessert.

4. Lemon verbena sabayon

This sabayon is made with lemon verbena, but you can use the same technique for infusing cream with all sorts of spices and herbs.


Text, recipes and images from Spice Health Heroes by Natasha MacAller published by Jacqui Small © Manja Wachsmuth Photography 2016. (Murdoch books, $49.99 hbk).

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