Nutrition: spices

Tuesday 08 May 2018

This seems to be a very good topic for this time of the year as we are in the run up to Christmas and we associate a lot of the Christmas food with spices and warmth.

As you may know spices have been used for centuries for their medicinal and culinary properties and this still seems to be the case today.  According to Ayurveda, the ancient Indian ‘life science’, ‘spices are key to keeping us well in the winter helping to bring balance to body, mind and emotions and helping us to adapt to the changing seasons’. Ayurveda followers believe that spices help us keep healthy by balancing our digestive systems and boosting our immune systems. Modern science is also recognising the immense power of spices. They have been shown to be rich in antioxidants which help to protect our cells from free radical damage, phytonutrients that have immune boosting properties, and many have been shown to be anti-carcinogenic and to contain essential oils with calming, healing properties.   

In this blog I want to focus on spices in general and look at interesting ways to use the most familiar ones in food preparation and cooking. Spices can be useful as a substitute for salt in foods and many people I know having chemotherapy report that spices help to mask the metallic taste in the mouth that can often occur. Spices have the ability to enhance dishes and lift what could be a mundane food to a different level.

Nutmeg So, let’s start with Nutmeg, a spice which is native of Indonesia. It is known for its calming effects and antimicrobial properties. It has a strong flavour and too much can make food taste medicinal .

  • Lightly grate over stewed fruit or porridge
  • Add to cakes, use topped on rice pudding or baked egg custard or as the Americans do, use it In pumpkin pie. I use a sprinkle in cooked mashed pumpkin or sweet potato.

Ginger is well known for its ability to relieve nausea/sickness that can often occur through treatment.

  • Try Ginger tea - Simply slice some fresh root ginger finely into a mug. Pour over boiling water and let it infuse for a few minutes. Some people add a little honey and or lemon. This is good sipped warm or chilled.  
  • Use ginger in salad dressings. Combine ½  tsp of freshly grated ginger, 2 tbsp of rice vinegar, 1 tbsp of tamari or soya sauce and 1 mashed clove of garlic.
  • I often make my own marinade for chicken or fish. Mix 1 tsp of fresh root ginger grated, 2 tbsp of tamari or soya sauce and 2 tbsps of mirin. Mix and pour over chicken or fish and leave for a couple of hours or overnight in the fridge before cooking.
  • Ginger is of course traditional in ginger cakes and biscuits.

Cinnamon is a light and fragrant spice made from the bark of a laurel tree. Cinnamon has been shown to support the role of insulin in its ability to stabilise blood sugar and help people with sugar cravings.

  • It can add a spicy note to breads, cakes, biscuits, pies (especially apple pie), custards and compotes.
  • Sticks or quills make up an infusion for mulled drinks and foods or can be added to water when boiling rice.
  • Simmer a cinnamon stick with 1 cup of soya milk and some honey to taste for a warm comforting drink.

Cloves have a warm sweet aromatic flavour. Cloves and apples go well together.

  • Clove powder can liven up ground coffee simply add a pinch to ground coffee before brewing.
  • Add ¼ tsp of clove powder to any stir fry for a punch.
  • Pierce an onion with 5 or 6 cloves and add to soups stocks and any poaching liquid.
  • Clove powder with walnuts and raisins add a lovely flavour to any stuffing.

Cumin is a spice used traditionally in the cuisine of Mexico, India and the Middle East. To bring out the flavour of cumin seeds they are better lightly toasted.

  • Make a cup of warming and soothing cumin tea by lightly boiling 2 tsps of cumin seeds in 2 cups of water, then allow them to steep for 10 minutes.
  • Using 2 cups of freshly cooked hot brown rice, give it some zest by adding 2 tsps of cumin seeds, 4oz of dried diced apricots, 4oz of flaked almonds and 2 tbsp of olive oil and ½ tsp of salt.
  • Take equal portions of cumin, black pepper and honey to add flavour and interest to vegetables for roasting, or roast/bake chicken or fish in the mixture.
  • I use cumin seeds tossed over new potatoes with some olive oil and then roast them in the oven. The same could be used for roasted carrots.

Coriander is considered a herb and a spice because both leaves and seeds are used for flavour and as a seasoning and condiment.  They are used extensively in the cuisine of Asia, China, Latin America and Spain. The flavour of coriander combines well with beetroot, onions, potatoes and lentils.

  • Coriander leaves can be used in the place of basil to make coriander pesto.
  • Lightly saute 1 bunch of fresh spinach, 2 cloves of fresh garlic and 2 tsps of coriander seeds. Mix in 1 cup of chickpeas and season with ¼ tsp of ginger and ½ tsp of cumin.
  • Use freshly chopped leaves in soups and casseroles. The stalks can be finely chopped as they add lots of flavour.
  • Use fresh coriander leaves tossed in a salad with other salad leaves.
  • Use chopped coriander leaves and equal parts mint leaves and mix with freshly chopped tomatoes and spring onions and mix through cauliflower rice to make a tabbouleh. A delicious lunch time meal.
  • 2 tsps ground  coriander, 1 tsp ground cumin and ½ tsp turmeric make a very good blend to add a mild curry flavour to vegetable dishes, soups and casseroles. 

Turmeric is a spice that has had a great deal of research applied to it and it has been shown to have many beneficial anti-cancer properties.  I want to deal with this in a separate blog simply because of the importance that it has got and the extent of the research surrounding it.

Butternut Squash and lentil dahl. Serves 4 - very quick and simple, the hardest part is peeling the squash!!!

I600ml/1 pt of vegetable stock
200g/7oz of green lentils
1 large butternut squash (about 1 kilo) peeled deseeded and cut into chunks.
1 tsp of turmeric powder
2 tsps of cumin and coriander powder.
1 tbsp olive oil
100g bag of spinach
Small bunch of coriander leaves chopped
1 lime zest and juice.
1 tbsp of desiccated coconut
50g/2oz pomegranate seeds.

1. Heat the oven gas 6/200’C. Bring the stock to the boil in a large pan. Tip in the lentils, cover and simmer for 20-25 mins until cooked but still retain a little bite.
2. Mix the squash with the spices and oil and spread out in a single layer on a roasting tin. Roast for 20 mins till squash is tender and lightly charred.
3. When everything is cooked bring it together by stirring the squash, spinach, fresh coriander, lime zest and juice into the lentils. Top with coconut and pomegranate seeds. Serve.

I hope that you try some of these ideas. You may have some of your own that you would like to share. I would be interested to hear. Also anyone who has been unlucky enough to experiences taste changes as a result of treatment and used spices in any way to relieve the symptoms. It may help others.


Blog  originally written by Caroline  Dec 2015 - checked April 2020

Get cancer support near you

To find your nearest Maggie's centre, enter your postcode or town below.

Sign up for our newsletter

Stay up to date with our news and fundraising by signing up for our newsletter.

Sign up