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Savory sensations


January 2011

Add a bit more spice to your life, and you may improve your quality of life — or, at the very least, look forward to eating your vegetables.

"Spices are very high in antioxidants, even more than fruits and vegetables," says Michelle Black of Milwaukee, a registered dietitian. She notes, however, that the potency of spices decreases with time, so replace your spices after they’ve been on the shelf for six to 12 months.

All spices have intrinsic health benefits, according to Alamelu Vairavan of Whitefish Bay, and she is on a mission to convince Americans to use more of them in their diets. Vairavan, who holds a degree in health information management from UW-Milwaukee, is the author of several cookbooks, including her latest, "Chettinad Kitchen: Food and Flavors from South India."

Vairavan brings her "magic bag of spices" everywhere, from Bloomingdale’s department store in Chicago to the annual Food and Wine Event in Kohler to her own Milwaukee Public Television series to the Whitefish Bay Farmers Market, where she demonstrates how to cook vegetables that even children will love.

"When spices are used as natural flavoring, it makes the food taste really aromatic and flavorful," Vairavan says, and that leads to another benefit: "When food is aromatic and flavorful, one is satisfied with a small portion."

Though we’re not offering medical advice, below are some spices often used for maintaining wellness in addition to flavoring foods:

Cumin seeds, which have a peppery flavor. Vairavan says they are a good source of iron and are known to aid digestion. Combined with black peppercorns in soup, cumin seeds can help relieve respiratory congestion due to colds and flu, she notes.

Ginger is also reputed to aid digestion and to relieve nausea, Black says. In China, ginger has been used medicinally for more than 2,000 years. Fresh ginger is used in chutneys and curry pastes.

Fennel seeds are a source of vitamin C. In India, Vairavan says, fennel seeds are not only used in cooking, but candy-coated fennel seeds are chewed as a breath freshener. Fennel seeds can be used to flavor fish and are also used as an ingredient in rye bread and sausages.

Cinnamon is often cited as a spice that can help control spikes in blood sugar. Use cinnamon on cereal, on fruit, in coffee or sprinkle a bit on sweet potatoes. Vairavan recommends using about a 1/2 teaspoon daily.

Turmeric is known as "Indian Gold," Vairavan says, and is often compared to saffron, one of the most expensive spices. Turmeric is one of the ingredients in curry powder and is a warm, earthy spice. "Vegetables come alive" when cooked with turmeric, and it is also added to rice dishes and meat marinades, Vairavan says. It is touted as an anti-oxidant, anti-spasmodic and anti-inflammatory agent.

Patty Erd, owner of the Spice House in Milwaukee, says it’s easy to incorporate spices in your diet. The Spice House website — — offers free recipes using all the spices discussed here and more, like this one that uses turmeric:

Spice House Turkish Rice Pilaf
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup basmati rice
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon pepper-shallot seasoning
1 teaspoon gray sea salt
1/3 cup dried apricots, chopped
2 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1/3 cup toasted slivered almonds

Melt the butter in a large sauté pan. Stir in rice until all grains are coated. Mix in remaining seasonings until the rice is an even, golden color from the turmeric. Add the stock and apricots, increase the heat and bring to a boil. Cover tightly, reduce heat and simmer on low until all the liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes. Sprinkle with toasted almonds just before serving. Makes about 2 cups.


This story ran in the January 2011 issue of: