Nowhere in cuisine is there a greater density of spices than in a traditional Indian curry. Curries contain turmeric, pepper, chili, coriander seed, cumin seed, cinnamon, asafoetida, bay leaves, curry leaves, cloves, and ginger: the list goes on and on. But what’s so interesting about this list of ingredients is the fact that science keeps unearthing new evidence for why they are good for us and why we should eat more of them.
Curries, especially curries from takeaways, aren’t usually all that healthy. Kormas and masalas are packed with ghee (a type of chilli butter), sugar and salt, as well as meat from questionable sources. Most curries have more calories than your average Big Mac, as well as more salt and fat, turning them into a health disaster.
But traditional curries weren’t always made this way. In fact, regular curries, made using a small amount of fat and salt and lots of lentils and veggies, are actually incredibly good for you. Here’s why.
Most people think of chili just as something that burns their tongue. That burning sensation is down to a compound in the chili called capsaicin and the sensation it produces results from its interaction with nerve cells in the tongue.
But there’s more to chilli than flavour spiciness. Chillies are a nutritional powerhouse, full of interesting and unusual plant compounds that contribute to health. The capsaicin that they contain has been shown to have beneficial effects on the cardiovascular system, encouraging the blood vessels to relax and open up wider thereby reducing blood pressure and taking strain off the heart. Eating lots of chillies can literally reduce your blood pressure – at least in the short term.
The other interesting effect of capsaicin is on mood. People who eat chili report feeling better about their lives and work, all thanks to the endorphins that the compound releases. In a sense, they get a kick out of it.
Coriander seeds, a staple of curry hampers everywhere, have long been providing flavor to traditional Indian dishes. But it turns out that they may also have been positively affecting our health too. A study published by the British Journal of Nutrition back in 1999 found that extracts of coriander seeds had positive, beneficial effects on people’s blood sugar levels. For reasons still largely unknown, coriander makes it easier for insulin to do its work, getting sugar out of the blood and into cells. This may have something to do with the fact that the polyphenols in coriander are very similar to those found in other health-promoting foods, like green tea and red wine. More research is needed.
Cumin is chilli flavour in many Indian and Middle-Eastern curries, from Morocco to Bangladesh. It’s what gives curry that Earthy, acrid taste. For millennia, cumin has been used in herbal medicine, but it is only recently that modern science has started to figure out why. According to a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, the oils in the cumin seed – the oils that give the seed its distinct flavour – are a highly effective antibacterial agent. In other words, they can help restore digestive balance if you’ve been eating all the wrong foods and you’ve got an overgrowth of bad bacteria in your gut.
On top of that, cumin has been found to reduce cholesterol, cementing its superstar status.
The science suggesting that turmeric is a superfood has been building for years. There have now been hundreds of studies done on the compound, and the word is getting out that we should all be including more of it in our diets.
In fact, the power of turmeric to prevent disease is so great that the spice is facing a bit of a backlash in the mainstream media. Over the last month or so, many stories have come out in the press about how turmeric isn’t the wonder food we all once thought it was, based on several high-profile retractions of papers regarding the root’s beneficial effects. The media has interpreted this as being evidence that the case for turmeric is flawed, but the retracted papers only represent a tiny proportion of the total number of papers on the subject.
The reasons for the media’s witch hunt are obvious. They’re backed by Big Pharma, and Big Pharma knows that if people start eating turmeric on a daily basis, they won’t be able to sell as many drugs or make as much money. So unless you care about the profits of drug companies, you might want to start eating more of this yellow spice.