Nutrition Australia released a new food pyramid this week, updating its advice on healthy eating for the first time in 15 years. It promotes the consumption of lots more vegetables, legumes and grains, limiting salt consumption and most importantly, using herbs and spices to flavour food.
What I love about the new pyramid is the extent to which it reflects the range of foods and style of cooking towards which I am increasingly gravitating. Everything old really is new again, and the century old recipes I have been recreating from the books of my spice mama ancestresses fit perfectly into this healthy eating template.
Indian food specializes in using a range of fresh, healthy natural ingredients paired with herbs and spices packed with antioxidant and health giving properties.
Take turmeric for example, which has been used for thousands of years, and contains anti-inflammatory and potentially cancer and dementia reducing properties.
Cumin, which can improve digestion and immune system resistance.
Cinnamon, which also aids digestion and can regulate blood sugar levels, and cloves, with their anti-bacterial properties.
Cardamom is widely used not just in cooking but to treat mouth infections and digestive disorders.
Pepper has also been used for its anti-bacterial properties, is a rich source of many vitamins and can also like so many of these spices boost immune resistance.
Let’s also look at some of the other key ingredients in any curry - onions, garlic and ginger, all of which contribute to a healthy immune system.
Chillies, packed to the brim with vitamins, anti-inflammatory properties and cardiovascular benefits (they are also supposed to help you lose weight, though I’m not convinced I have personally enjoyed that benefit yet).
I use all of these ingredients on a daily basis to replace the use of excess fats, salt, sugar and artificial flavourings and colourings in my cooking. I can eat vegetarian food for days without missing meat, as long as its full of flavor – spicy Bombay potatoes with lots of turmeric, beans pungent with mustard seeds and cumin seeds, my favourite green chutney which is so full of healthy ingredients it beats a green juice any day.
When I was young many of these herbs and spices were also used for medicinal purposes. We were always made to gargle with a potent mix of hot water, turmeric and salt if we felt a cough coming on – as much as I hated it, it worked, and I still do it. I also remember a strange mixture of warm oil and garlic for earaches – but I’m not going near that one again.
So many people grow up with the idea of Indian food as the greasy but satisfying (after a few beers) fare produced by Indian restaurants around the world. Indian home cooking is the polar opposite of this – fresh, healthy and packed with an amazing array of natural ingredients used for their flavor and medicinal potential for centuries.
The quest for exotic spices motivated the world’s first wave of globalization in the 14th and 15th centuries as European explorers searched for, discovered and colonized the sources of these precious commodities.
Luckily for us, most of these once highly prized and valuable spices are now easily available on the shelves of our local supermarkets. My bottle masala uses a mix of 20 natural spices, freshly roasted and ground to make the task of using them to flavor Indian food an easier one. Turmeric and cumin are two other common spices you should always have on hand.
If you’re looking for an easy and very satisfying way of making your cooking and eating healthier, increasing your use of herbs and spices is highly recommended.