Depending on which half of the world you’re in as you read this, Fall season has arrived… ushering in shorter, cooler days. Coats are slowly claiming the closet space again, as have the knee-high boots. Plants are getting ready for the season too, their own way – my chrysanthemum is throwing out flowers with abandon and the cherry tree next to her is slowly balding.
Just as I was taking in all this, my neighbor who was on her way back from shopping said, “I love me a warm soup on a grey day like this!” That gave me a nudge to ask my inner muse, what would make her happy on a wintry day.
This is what I heard: “It’s gotta be spices. Think of this for a minute: delicious foods that love us back are always in season. Right? If you were looking for ingredients that would perk up how you are feeling and the flavor of your cooking – for most minimal effort, cozily covering you from the common cool weather blues – it’s got to be spices.”
I have profiled seven most loved warming spices of the world, to get you started with your own happiness-kit for the cooler days ahead. Pick what agrees with your muse.
1. Cardamom: One of the most expensive spices after Saffron and Vanilla, it is a spice that is used in both sweet and savory dishes. It is a pod with seeds inside, which are crushed or even ground in a mortar and pestle before using. This is a wonderful spice to wake up your senses and prep you on a groggy day. It would make a lovely addition for your Chai or even your breakfast oatmeal.
Aroma: Hints of eucalyptus, sweet, strong and heady.
Taste: Somewhat lemony, bursting with camphor like flavor, pleasantly warming and leaves you feeling fresh.
2. Saffron: It is one of the most exquisite of spices both in its looks and aroma. It comes in shades of gorgeous red and yellow-orange. The former is the higher quality and yellow ones are the second grade. You only need a 1-5 threads of Saffron per cup of base, whatever yours may be. If you used it in milk, it needs to be warmed and then add your saffron to color and flavor it. It’s taste is so beautifully elevating that, Saffron milk is ritually served to newly-wed couples on their ‘first night’, in India.
Aroma: Very exotic, floral, somewhat sweet smelling.
Taste: Fine as in delicate, mildly bitter and pleasantly warming.
3. Cumin: This is a very ordinary looking spice and often mistaken for Black Cumin – which is NOT a cumin, it is only another name for Nigella seeds. Neither is it a relative of Curcumin, which is the active ingredient in Turmeric! It may be very relevant here to say, it cannot be substituted by Caraway either. Cumin is a seed of the very delicately beautiful Cumin plant and it belongs to the Parsley family. For every one cup of cooked grains, tempering of a teaspoon of cumin would make a world of difference.
Aroma: Warm, richly spicy, may remind you of Thyme
Taste: Nutty, slightly pungent, with a hint of earthiness
4. Cinnamon: One of the most familiar of spices after Black Pepper would be Cinnamon. In other places like India Latin America and Middle Eastern countries, it is mostly favored in savory dishes. Also very important to note the difference between True Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) and Cassia Cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia). Cassia is sweeter, cheaper of the two and what is mostly available in the US.
Please note, 1 teaspoon of Cassia, would be exceeding the safe upper limit even for an adult. More is not necessarily better! Though the easiest way to include cinnamon may be with your beverage, I’d encourage you to try throwing in a small piece when you saute your onions or veggies for any savory dish.
Aroma: Sweet and woody, with some hints of clove
Taste: Warm, delicately spicy and vibes fabulously with other spices or ingredients without sticking out.
5. Clove: Clove and orange pomander-making is one of the many delights of a holiday season. Prized for its precious medicinal qualities, wars were fought in Europe of 1600s, to protect the clove trees from the curious eyes of the world. The fragrant clove comes handy with desserts and savory preparations alike, even though it is hot in taste. In a dish, be sure to use the smallest amount required as it tends to be loud. Also, once the dish is made, you’d want to remove the clove, if you have used it whole. Best tip to use cloves? Pair it with cinnamon. The complex flavors of the two blending in a dish is amazing.
Aroma: Strong camphor-like, warm suggesting its potent heat spiking abilities.
Taste: Instant numbing sensation followed by hot peppery taste.
6. Turmeric: It is very likely the most researched of spices, extremely potent in even tiny culinary quantities. Dr. Michael Greger, who scours the all the research and medical journals related to nutrition to present the science of food – minus the muddle, says, there is evidence that raw turmeric may be better if one is fighting inflammation of some kind where as the cooked form of turmeric is more protective of DNA. There is also a detailed discussion on the merits of using it as a culinary spice as opposed to taking the supplement for convenience.
Aroma: Fresh turmeric will likely remind you of ginger where as dried turmeric is beautifully earthy and woody at once.
Taste: The fresh turmeric has a gingery bite with hints of lemon and the dried is bitter with a mild pungent note.
7. Black Pepper: Did you know that pepper was once prized for it’s aphrodisiac properties? It was even used in perfumes. Jack Turner is his fascinating book, Spice: The history of a temptation, delves into the human emotional responses to these spices that shaped the history of our world. It is relevant also to mention here, Sichuan pepper which is popular nowadays is not a true pepper. The same goes for pink peppercorns from Brazil, which belongs to cashew family! These have no relationship to true pepper, which goes by the scientific name Piper nigrum. Black pepper increases the bio-availability of many spices, including turmeric.
Aroma: Warm, fruity- like lemony pungent notes.
Taste: Sharp bite and gives a hot sensation on the tongue right away.
General guidelines to buying spices:
- Buy small quantities of the best quality spices. Picking up in larger quantities or looking for cheaper versions is not an economical thing to do when it comes to spices.
- Always buy whole spices and process them as you need. Powdered ones do not keep well, over long periods of time.
Did you like this? Check my e-book, Ultimate Practical Guide to Using Spices With Confidence, here.
About the Author
Girija Satyanarayan is the founder of health-initiatives.me and a healthy cooking coach in San Jose, CA. She is a graduate of the Plant-based Nutrition program from eCornell. After many years of working as a hospital based dietitian and diabetes educator in India, she has grown to believe that food is best discussed in the kitchen setting. After all, that’s where the knowledge translates into practice.