Spicy foods can turn a plain old meal into a dining adventure. Many world cuisines feature delicious spicy dishes, including:
Herbs and Spices
Although many people use the terms herbs and spices interchangeably, they are, in fact, different. While herbs are the flavorful leaves of plants, spices are the aromatic parts of plants. Both add wonderful flavor and personality to your meals. Some spices you may want to add to your cabinet include:
- Allspice: This Jamaican-grown spice has a taste and fragrance that is warm and sweet, similar to a combination of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Allspice is traditionally used in Caribbean cooking.
- Curry Powder: Curry powder is actually a combination of many spices, including coriander, cumin, fenugreek and turmeric. It is commonly used in the cuisines of India, Thailand and Jamaica.
- Chili Powder: Chili powder, also a spice mix, contains cumin, garlic, oregano and chili peppers. Available in mild and hot varieties, chili powder is most often used in Mexican recipes.
- Ginger: Ginger has a fresh, hot and spicy flavor and is used in many international cuisines, most commonly Asian.
- Hot Peppers: Fiery hot peppers add color and heat to many recipes from around the world, including Mexican and Caribbean dishes. Many varieties are available, including Jalapeno, Habenero and Scotch bonnet.
- Onions, garlic, scallions and shallots: An almost endless variety of species in this family can spice up your dish and add subtle color to dishes from all nations.
Cooking with Herbs and Spices
Learning to get the most from herbs and spices in your cooking can take years of practice. Here are a few simple tips for cooking spicy foods:
- Keep it simple: Unless a specific recipe calls for many spices, try working with no more than three herbs or spices in a single dish. Over spicing a dish detracts from the foods’ natural flavors and typically makes dishes less palatable.
- Take care when adding spice flavors: Overcooking spices can damage their flavors, making them too strong. For long-cooking dishes, try adding your spices an hour or less before serving. In short-cooking dishes, dry spices can be added early in the preparation. In all recipes, delicate fresh herbs and spices should be added toward the end of cooking.
- Try substitutions for variety: Sometimes substituting one seasoning for another can result in a wonderful new flavor. Try substituting anise for fennel, cilantro for parsley, marjoram for oregano or savory for thyme.
Health Benefits of Spicy Foods
In addition to being delicious, spicy foods may also have some health benefits. Spicy food seems to help with weight loss and prevent or relieve certain ailments.
One of the most promising spicy foods in the health arena is Capsaicin. Capsaicin is found in hot peppers, such as jalapenos. Scientists have recently discovered that capsaicin triggers cell death in cancer cells by attacking their mitochondria. This raises hopes that new cancer drugs may be developed using capsaicin to target cancer cell mitochondria.
Capsaicin is also a powerful pain reliever and is now used for the treatment of chronic pain from many sources. Capsaicin may also be useful in treating other health conditions, including:
- arthritis pain and inflammation
- depression (by increasing endorphin production)
- flu and other respiratory problems (by promoting sweating and opening sinus passages)
- headaches (cluster headaches and migraines)
- Herpes Simplex and Herpes Zoster (reduces flare-ups when applied topically)
- muscle pain (applied topically)
- overactive bladder and incontinence (applied through catheter)
- poison ivy and oak (applied topically)
- post operative pain (applied topically)
- psoriasis (applied topically)
- ulcers (hot peppers inhibit growth of ulcer causing bacteria).
Turmeric is another delicious way to get health benefits from spicy food. Like capsaicin, it is a powerful anti-inflammatory and may provide relief for arthritis sufferers. A recent study revealed that the curcumin found in turmeric minimized morning stiffness, prolonged walking time and reduced swelling in joints. Turmeric may also help:
- cancer (both prevention and cell growth inhibition in many types of cancer)
- cardiovascular protection
- cystic fibrosis
- liver function
- lowering cholesterol
- protection against Alzheimer’s disease.
Using ginger in your spicy food recipes may also have health benefits. Ginger is great for digestion and may provide relief from:
- high cholesterol
- migraine headaches
- morning sickness
- motion sickness