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Warming Winter Spices

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In Watership Down</EM>, Richard Adams wrote, "Many human beings say that they enjoy the winter, but what they really enjoy is feeling proof against it.

In Watership Down, Richard Adams wrote, "Many human beings say that they enjoy the winter, but what they really enjoy is feeling proof against it." Cheering ourselves with the following warming winter spices is a great way to do that.

Cumin

One of the oldest cultivated spices, cumin was a popular spice and medicinal herb in ancient Egypt. It was used for illnesses of the digestive tract, to treat coughs and chest colds, and to relieve pain, particularly for toothache. Three pain-relieving compounds have been found in cumin, along with seven that are anti-inflammatory and four that combat swelling.

Indian ayurvedic medical practitioners recommend drinking a cumin, coriander and fennel tea to help clear up acne. Combine the herbs equally for a total of one teaspoon and steep for 10 minutes in hot water. Strain the tea and drink three cups a day after meals. Even if it doesn't clear up your acne, it will certainly help your digestion. Like its close relatives caraway and anise, cumin invigorates the entire digestive system and alleviates flatulence and bloating.

Cinnamon

Native to India and Sri Lanka, cinnamon is the inner bark of several species of tree known as Cinnamomun, a member of the laurel family. The compound responsible for cinnamon's distinctive spicy taste is cinnamaldehyde, and this is also found in non-related species such as cinnamon basil. Research indicates that cinnamaldehyde is both a sedative and analgesic. It also reduces blood pressure.

Cinnamon stimulates the circulation and has traditionally been taken as a "warming" herb, sometimes in combination with ginger. As such, the spice is used to relieve aching muscles and other symptoms of the common cold. Cinnamon's volatile oils possess both antiviral and stimulating properties. It is also a classic remedy for digestive problems. Cinnamon accelerates the digestion of fats and enhances the activity of trypsin, an enzyme that breaks down proteins in the small intestine.

Cloves

Another popular winter spice is cloves, which are the unopened flower buds of a tropical tree in the same family as allspice and guavas. The clove tree is native to the Molucca Islands (also known as the Spice Islands) in Indonesia, but is now cultivated throughout Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Tanzania and Brazil.

Cloves first arrived in Europe around the fourth century, but the spice remained a rare luxury until about 1500 when increased sea trade with the Orient brought cloves in quantity into European kitchens. Chinese medicine has used cloves to treat indigestion, diarrhea, hernia, ringworm, and athlete's foot and other fungal infections. In traditional Indian ayurvedic medicine, the spice is used to treat respiratory and digestive problems. The brilliant medieval German abbess, composer and herbalist Hildegard of Bingen, recommended cloves in the treatment of gout.

Toothache is still effectively treated with cloves, as a chemical compound in the spice, called eugenol, has both analgesic and antiseptic qualities. A bruised clove or some clove oil on cotton wool is held in the mouth near the tooth. Some dentists still use cloves to disinfect ailing root canals and mix clove oil with zinc oxide for temporary fillings.

In the kitchen, cloves make a powerful contribution to both sweet and savoury dishes. Generally whole cloves are removed from the dish before serving. To avoid discolouration of the dish, clear clove oil may be substituted for powdered cloves. As a testimony to the power of the scent of cloves, the clove-studded pomander is a perennial favourite as a room or closet freshener and moth repellent.

Turmeric

Returning from China in 1280, Marco Polo wrote in his notes, "There is also a vegetable that has all the properties of true saffron, as well as the smell and the colour, and yet it is not really saffron." He was writing about turmeric, which is still used as an inexpensive substitute for saffron and sometimes called "Indian saffron," although more likely because of its use in curry than because of Marco Polo.

The use of turmeric as a colouring agent for food and fabric dates back to before 600 BC. Turmeric is still used in pickles and relishes and to flavour and colour prepared mustard. The rhizome, or root, is carefully unearthed, broken into sections and then boiled or steamed before being dried. The result is a bright yellow powder with a mild, slightly bitter, peppery flavour and aroma. Oil of turmeric contains mint-flavoured borneol, spicy eucalyptol with a camphor-like smell and zingerone, the spicy-sweet flavouring in ginger. Turmeric is part of the ginger family.

Medicinally, turmeric has received considerable and favourable publicity lately. In the May/June 1996 issue of Nutritional News, turmeric was listed as having anti-inflammatory action equal to and sometimes better than cortisone and phenylbutazone treatment. Nutritional News also reported studies indicating that turmeric's antioxidant value makes it five times more effective as a free radical scavenger than vitamin E and that it has powerful anticancer and anticholesterol properties.

In traditional Indian ayurvedic medicine, the herb is considered a natural antibiotic that can also strengthen digestion and improve intestinal flora. Some herbalists recommend using turmeric's antibacterial constituent (curcumin) topically to fight certain skin conditions such as psoriasis and athlete's foot. Turmeric's longstanding benefit as a treatment for digestive and liver problems has largely been confirmed by scientific study, but if a little is good, a lot is not necessarily better. Large amounts of turmeric can cause stomach upset.

Nutmeg

Nutmeg and mace are both the fruit of the nutmeg tree, a large evergreen, which, like cloves, are native to the Moluccas. Mace is the red aril, or casing, of the fruit, and nutmeg is the interior seed. Both can be hallucinogenic and toxic if used in high amounts.

In Chinese herbal medicine, nutmeg is used for intestinal problems, especially for diarrhea. In India, nutmeg is believed to increase sexual stamina and has an enduring reputation as an aphrodisiac.

In the kitchen, nutmeg is not only appetizing in sweet foods, but it also enhances the flavour of meats, vegetables and the contents of stuffed pasta, especially a cheese and/or spinach stuffing. It is excellent sprinkled over hot or cold milk drinks, eggnog and mulled wine. Use it in making cakes, cookies, pies, pastries, muffins, waffles and coffeecake. Whether added to the filling or poured over as a sauce, nutmeg glorifies apple or mincemeat pie, apple dumplings, steamed puddings and gingerbread.

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