Michael van Straten
Michael van Straten

Spice Up Your Life

The rest of the world tends to think of British cooking as not being very interesting or exciting – just a mound of roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, fish and chips, brown sauce and all-day breakfasts. But as anyone who lives here knows, you can find the most amazing collection of tandoori chicken, crispy duck, Thai green curry and chilli con carne in every small town high street. And that diversity is mainly due to the use of spices.

As a nation, we've had a love affair with spices from the time of ancient Rome to the middle ages, from the Spanish armada to the East India Company and from the days of the Raj to the 21st century. It has to be said, however, that most people's idea of using spices in their own cooking doesn't reach further than a ginger biscuit, some nutmeg on the rice pudding or a couple of cloves in the apple pie. But apart from their wonderful flavours, spices have valuable medicinal properties - and they certainly seem more appropriate at this time of year as Christmas approaches.

Mince pies, Christmas cake, Christmas pudding, stuffing, bread sauce, mulled wine and even the nutmeg on the Brussels sprouts all enhance flavours, make food easier to digest and improve the way your body deals with the extra rich delicacies of the Christmas holidays. That’s almost entirely due to the spices.

More than that, you can use them all year round - on their own, added to cooking or simply as teas made with boiling water to fight infections, boost immunity, stimulate your circulation and even to give the body increased protection against some forms of cancer.
We're going to look at the benefits of:
- Allspice
- Cardamom
- Cayenne And Other Chilies
- Cinnamon
- Cloves
- Fennel Seeds
- Ginger
- Nutmeg


This spice may sound like a random mixture of spices, but, in fact, allspice is a very specific red-brown berry which originated in Jamaica. It's a flamboyant, evergreen tree which also grows throughout central and southern America, reaching 30 ft and living for 100 years.

Allspice is great in curries, rich fruit cakes and to add extra flavour to jams. It contains a wide variety of essential oils - substances which give it its powerful and long-lasting aroma and which also contribute to its valuable therapeutic benefits. These naturally occurring oils have wide-ranging benefits including mood-calming and emotionally-enhancing properties. Allspice is also an effective digestive aid.


Of all the ancient spices, cardamom is probably the oldest and most highly valued. It tastes wonderful in savoury or sweet dishes and ground cardamom seeds are an essential ingredient in garam masala.

Medicinally, cardamom is best known for its digestive properties and is a particularly good remedy for wind. It can be used as a liquid tincture or simply added to food. Chewing a few seeds after a meal is the best way of getting rid of the smell of garlic and onions from your breath.

Cayenne And Other Chilies

Most of us know cayenne as a red pepper powder bought in jars or packets of spice, but cayenne is, in fact, a chili, one of the hottest members of the capsicum family. It boosts immunity against colds and flu, helps digestion and improves circulation - which explains its traditional South American reputation as a sexy spice for men.

Use it in curries, mulled wines, Indian, Afro-Caribbean and Indonesian food and added to scrambled eggs, savoury omelettes, shepherd's pie or meat balls.

Although chilies are relatively new to this country, they've been grown in central and South America for around 7,000 years. Chilies are a powerful stimulant and their main active ingredient, capsaicin, helps increase blood flow, including circulation to the brain.


Cinnamon is one of the earliest of spices to be traded and was discovered in Sri Lanka during the late 15th and early 16th centuries. This wonderful aromatic spice is a member of the laurel family and is made from the dried bark. It can be used as ground powder, small pieces or as the wonderfully fragrant cinnamon sticks.

A vitality-boosting stimulant, tonic and antiseptic, it overcomes exhaustion and general tiredness after colds and flu. Immersing a stick into a hot toddy of boiling water, honey, lemon and whisky releases the volatile oil cinnamaldehyde, which not only has a tonic effect, but is also a gentle pain killer. Boiling a cinnamon stick in water makes a really good inhalation for blocked sinuses and chesty coughs.


The dried flower buds from the clove tree first appeared in Chinese medical books around 300 BC. They originally only grew on the Moluccas, a tiny group of five islands, but spread to Mauritius and Zanzibar during the 18th century. They’re used in cooking to flavour stewed fruits, sauces, baked hams, stews, casseroles, curries, mulled wine and alcoholic drinks. Their antiseptic properties protect against stomach bugs and they relieve flatulence and indigestion.

Cloves boost resistance and added to a hot toddy make a soothing remedy for coughs.

Fennel Seeds

Fennel although originally found growing wild throughout Europe, is now widely cultivated around the world and has a history dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. The seeds are used for a variety of health problems and like so many of the spices they’re well known as a digestive aid. But fennel seeds have much wider benefits too, and they're largely due to their high content of the essential oil fenchone. Fennel seeds are diuretic so especially useful around period time to relieve fluid retention. Used as an infusion, they make an excellent gargle for sore throats.

Fennel also has oestrogen-like properties and helps to stimulate the flow of milk when breast feeding. It has a specific effect on smooth muscle contraction, which makes it invaluable in the treatment of constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, colic and indigestion.


These ugly roots - which are, in fact, rhizomes, thick underground stems from which the plants reproduce - have been highly treasured in India and China for more than 3000 years as both food and medicine. Ginger was one of the earliest spices to be brought to the western world and the powdered version was as common as salt and pepper as a condiment on late medieval dining tables.

Ginger is a great cure for any sort of nausea - early morning sickness, travel sickness, nausea with migraine. This is a powerful circulatory booster useful as an invigorating stimulant to give you energy and get-up-and-go when you really need it. It also helps relieve varicose veins, chilblains and cold hands and feet.

Use it in cakes or biscuits, to make into tea, or take as ginger capsules.

Nutmeg and mace both come from the same tree, Myristica fragrans, a large, long-living evergreen which grows abundantly in The Spice Islands.

In Britain we've traditionally used both nutmeg and mace in sweet dishes - particularly sprinkled on rice pudding or French toast and as an aromatic to flavour fruit cakes and Christmas puddings. Victorian nannies were especially fond of nutmeg - and for good reason. It contains myristicin and elemicin, which have a mildly soporific effect. A calming bowl of rice pudding might mean their young charges would settle down to sleep and nanny could have an evening off.

The Dutch add it to vegetable dishes, especially mashed potato, Italians sprinkle it on pasta, and in the Middle East it's used in lamb recipes.


Marco Polo was one of the first westerners to spot the potential of this mildly flavoured and useful herb. He thought it reminded him of saffron. Little did he know that in this country, where saffron can be very expensive, many people today do use turmeric in much the same way as saffron - to add a warm, yellow colour and pungent, bitter fragrance to white rice.

Like all pungent spices, it has a gentle, stimulating effect. Many Eastern nations make full use of this and take it as a general tonic. It's also used in Asia to ease liver problems. Latest research shows it's highly protective against many forms of cancer, especially of the prostate, and it's also known to protect skin cells from damage during radiotherapy.


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