Tasty - and healthy - holiday herbs and spices
Reap the health benefits of holiday herbs and spices.
When it comes to festive flavours, certain seasonings are synonymous with Christmas. Whether used to prepare apple cider, glazed ham, or pumpkin pie, these herbs and spices can tickle your taste buds and boost your well-being during the holidays—and throughout the rest of the year.
The European explorers who discovered allspice on the island of Jamaica named it for its unique flavour—a combination, they believed, of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove. Today, allspice is still cultivated in a number of Caribbean countries, as well as in Mexico, Central America, and other warm parts of the world.
The allspice that is sold on store shelves is the dried fruit of the Jamaican pepper tree (also called a pimento tree). In order to retain their full flavour and aroma, allspice berries are harvested before they are fully ripe and, traditionally, left to dry in the sun.
Jamaica is the top exporter of allspice for global consumption, and many classic Jamaican dishes, such as beef patties and jerk seasoning, make use of the spice. Allspice is also indispensable in Middle Eastern cuisine, adding a peppery kick to hearty stews and meat dishes.
In North America allspice is usually reserved for sweet desserts, among them gingerbread and pie. But this versatile spice also benefits savoury fare such as Cincinnati-style chili, as well as classic holiday casseroles and mashes (pumpkin, squash, and sweet potatoes pair particularly well with allspice). Many hot-cider recipes call for a pinch (or two) as well.
Although allspice is better known for its culinary uses than for its healing properties, research is starting to reveal what traditional medicine has long purported: not only can allspice help to ease digestive problems, but it may also reduce muscle pain, fight disease-causing pathogens, and improve circulation. To soothe aching muscles, a poultice of ground allspice and water may be applied directly to the skin.
Who doesn’t love the scent of clove at Christmas? Festive orange pomanders studded with whole dried cloves make for fragrant holiday decor, while many a mulled cider is spiced with the stuff. Until modern times, however, the cultivation of the evergreen tree that produces clove was limited to a small group of Indonesian islands.
Eventually, the highly prized spice (often traded for its weight in gold) found its way to the Middle East and Europe, where it was used to mask the taste of poorly preserved foods and freshen bad breath (clove is still a common ingredient in many toothpastes and mouthwashes).
Between Indian Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, whole cloves and their oil are used to combat everything from morning sickness to flatulence. Most commonly, clove is used as a treatment for dental pain. Some Western studies also support the use of the spice for toothaches.
Clove—a source of manganese, omega-3 fatty acids, dietary fibre, and vitamins C and K—may also prevent vomiting and relieve various digestive ailments. You may be able to soothe an upset stomach by sipping clove tea; just add a tablespoon of the ground spice to hot water, and strain before serving.
For culinary uses beyond your holiday ham, use clove to flavour curries, meat marinades, and fruit compotes. Birria, a Mexican stew served with corn tortillas, onion, cilantro, and lime, also calls for clove, pairing it with cinnamon and cumin.
The ancient Greeks sprinkled cumin on their food so frequently, it was kept in its own container at the dining table. In Egypt, use of the spice extended past the kitchen and into the afterlife, with cumin figuring in the cocktail of preservatives used to mummify pharaohs.
Today cumin seeds are popular around the world. Whole or ground, they add a toasty flavour to winter soups, stews, and curries and are a staple in Indian, North African, Middle Eastern, Cuban, Brazilian, and western Chinese cooking. Tex-Mex cuisine calls for cumin in a range of dishes, from chicken and chili to chimichangas.
At Christmas dinner, cumin complements the flavours of roasted carrot and squash—a happy coincidence, since the spice has long been used to aid digestion and prevent gas and bloating. In fact, a 2004 study indicates cumin may stimulate the liver to secrete more bile, assisting in the breakdown of fats and absorption of nutrients.
Researchers are now taking a second look at cumin, which contains certain anticarcinogenic properties useful for cancer prevention and treatment. A small number of studies show that the spice could potentially be used to lower blood glucose levels in diabetics.
With squash, pumpkin, and apple season upon us, nutmeg makes a warm addition to pies, mashes, and soups. A common ingredient in sweet-and-spicy ciders, this tropical tree seed is usually sold in powdered form, though it can be bought fresh and grated. For a cup of Christmas cheer (with bonus health benefits), sprinkle ground nutmeg atop eggnog and other warm drinks made with milk.
Nutmeg has historically been hailed as an aphrodisiac; it is also used homeopathically to treat bad breath, ease intestinal problems, and even cure insomnia. The aromatherapy applications of nutmeg oil are generally related to muscular aches and pains, particularly rheumatic neuralgia.
Long used in India to flavour food, dye saris, and bless a bride and groom on their wedding day, the health benefits of turmeric—which contains a powerful polyphenol called curcumin—have been revealing themselves over centuries.
Best known for its anti-inflammatory properties, modern studies show this “golden” spice to be beneficial in the treatment of various conditions, from cancer to Alzheimer’s disease, depression to psoriasis. Most recently, Thai researchers found that turmeric may aid in the prevention of heart attacks that can happen after a patient undergoes bypass surgery.
In the kitchen, turmeric makes a bright addition to lentils and rice, and pairs beautifully with dried fruit and nuts. Medicinally speaking, however, the spice isn’t safe for all. If you are susceptible to kidney stones, for example, or are scheduled to undergo surgery (of any kind), turmeric may not be your best bet.
Tidings of comfort and joy
Spices connected to the Christmas story may have practical present-day uses.
Presented to baby Jesus by the three wise men, this edible tree resin has been used in Asia for hundreds of years to promote better digestion and to heal wounds. Studies reveal it may also help treat chronic inflammatory diseases such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and osteoarthritis.
A second gift from the wise men, this herb is used in Chinese medicine to treat rheumatic, arthritic, and circulatory problems, as well as menopause. Myrrh is also added to some herbal toothpastes and mouthwashes to help prevent gum disease, gingivitis, and bad breath.
Reportedly used to wash Jesus’s swaddling clothes, this fragrant herb is sometimes used to soothe bug bites and burns, aid in sleep, and prevent acne. A small study found that lavender oil may also help to alleviate anxiety.
This plant bore fruit out of season on the night that Jesus was born. Long reputed to improve memory, current research reveals that rosemary may lower the risk of stroke and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Some accounts say that a blooming sage bush hid Mary and baby Jesus from King Herod’s soldiers, making it known as the “herb of immortality.” While it has been used throughout history to treat virtually every ailment imaginable, new studies are investigating the effectiveness of sage in the management of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease.
Mace is ace
Nutmeg is not one spice, but two: nutmeg is the seed and mace is made from the red membrane that covers the nutmeg seed. Described as having a flavour that combines cinnamon and pepper, mace makes a nice substitute for nutmeg in cherry and chocolate dishes.