Spices are widely used throughout the Mediterranean, reflecting a strong multi-cultural influence. Spices are not just a taste additive – they have been used to treat and cure a wide variety of ailments for thousands of years. For example Saffron, which per gram is more expensive than gold, has strong liver-protective and anti-cancer properties.
Three Mediterranean Spices for your kitchen
Most people think of the colourful Mediterranean local market and think of the array of fruits and vegetables. But what about all those wonderful spices – colours for your health, your taste buds, and, sometimes, even for your clothes. This is the Rainbow Diet – not just the nourishing food but a lifestyle. Here we look at three common spices in the Mediterranean.
Turmeric, with its yellow pigment curcumin, is the underground stem of a tropical perennial that grows in many hot countries. The stem is a light brown colour on the outside but, when ground, produces a bright yellow powder. It is a common component on the Southern Mediterranean shores.
It is the single most researched compound in the world – with strong anti-inflammatory benefits. It is a powerful antioxidant and is known to boost glutathione levels and prevent liver damage. It has proven antimicrobial powers often being used in local recipes around the world along with meat that is slightly ‘off’. However, these properties have resulted in its use in treating colorectal cancer, and it is known to improve the effectiveness of certain drugs while at the same time protecting healthy cells.
Cumin is the seed of a small plant related to parsley but found in hot climates, especially North Africa, India and the Americas. The seeds are boat-shaped and resemble caraway seeds, but are lighter in colour and have tiny bristles. They should be roasted before being ground, but can then be used to spice up a whole range of dishes including curries, stews and grills. Cumin is also very commonly used in Mexican, Spanish, Indian or Middle Eastern cooking. A word of warning, however: go easy on the cumin – half a teaspoon is ample for a family of four! Cumin has long been believed to help people suffering from disorders of the digestive tract including heartburn, nausea and diarrhoea, probably due to it stimulating the production of pancreatic enzymes. Cumin is also believed to have important anti-cancer properties, firstly because of its ability to neutralise cancer-causing free radicals, and, secondly, by enhancing the liver ́s detoxification enzymes.
Fresh ginger is often recommended to relieve symptoms of nausea – some people chew a slice, or grate it to make a hot drink. It has major benefits as an anti-inflammatory and is anti-microbial. Preliminary studies at the American Association of Cancer Research have shown that gingerol – an active ingredient in ginger – may halt the growth of colon cancer, and it is effective in killing yeasts and microbes. Research has seen it used with breast and prostate cancer, and in 2015 research showed that ginger helped normalise blood sugar levels.
Variety in your foods really is the spice of life.