The familiar aroma of blended turmeric, coriander, cumin, fenugreek, ginger and peppercorns wafts from my kitchen every Sunday morning. It means mum’s cooking curry for lunch. We curry everything: meat, vegetables, and even eggs. Due to the laborious preparations involved, and the necessity of owning a full-time job, curries are only weekend luxuries. Of course these days everything come in packets, ready to be stirred into hot water and dished out. But they are not quite the same.
Some say that the term ‘curry’ originated from the Tamil word ‘kari’ which was a simple stew-like, spiced sauce. But this claim needs authentication. When the British Raj arrived in India, they called all Indian dishes curry. Today the curry is a £4.2bn a year industry in the UK alone (1) and the “chicken tikka masala” has been declared a British national dish.
Traditionally, curries are made using spices that were blended using stone tools such as, mortar and pestle and grindstones. And spices have to be ground just before they are used, and not ahead and stored.
The ammikallu, a typical grindstone used for wet masalas. (Source: http://www.idiva.com/news-ifood/5-grandma-gadgets-i-grew-up-with/15091457)
The spices were chosen carefully to not just complement the meat or vegetables in the curry, but more importantly, for their medicinal values.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa)
Turmeric is a plant that belongs to the ginger family. It is a mandatory spice in all curries and its use dates back 4000 years to the Vedic culture in India. Almost all of the world’s turmeric is produced in India, which also consumes about 80% of it.
Turmeric root and powder. (Source: http://shaidysworld.com/en/2015/12/10-foods-to-help-fight-cancer/)
The active ingredient of turmeric and the compound responsible for its golden colour is called curcumin. Numerous studies have been conducted on this compound which boasts a whole myriad of goodness. Turmeric is known to possess antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties. In South Indian folk medicine, turmeric is administered locally to treat blisters, acne and even herpes infections. It is known to purify blood, cure common cold and urinary infections when administered orally. People suffering from rhinitis (common cold) were asked to inhale the fumes of smoldering turmeric (2). When turmeric was tested on rats with elevated blood cholesterol, it reduced the level significantly, proving its role in cardiac wellness too (3). A 2016 study has shown promising anti-cancer properties of curcumin in vitro: the compound reduced the proliferation of gastric cancer cells by downregulating the crucial oncogene (cancer-causing gene) c-Myc (4).
Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum)
No seafood or vegetable curry is complete without fenugreek. Actually, this seed is very common in South Asian gravies in general. This small, hard, brownish spice has a mild bitter taste and should be lightly fried or ground prior to use. Because a small amount of this seed goes a long way, fenugreek should be purchased often and in small quantities.
Fenugreek seeds. (Source: http://floris.co.il/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/fenugreek-seeds.jpg)
Mothers of neonates who consumed fenugreek have shown an increased amount of lactation. Lactation insufficiency commonly arises in women with delayed pregnancy and obesity (5). To alleviate this problem and to augment milk production, fenugreek is commonly included in the postnatal confinement menu. This plant is unique for its presence in both Chinese and Indian remedies, particularly for the treatment of diabetes and obesity. Fenugreek is a rich source of protein and contains a greater amount of minerals than other legumes. The seed has also shown to reduce gastric ulcers (6). In India, menstruating women are advised to sip fenugreek infusion to alleviate dysmenorrhea (painful menstrual cramps), instead of consuming prescribed non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). These drugs may provide momentary pain relief, but prolonged usage will cause adverse effects such as gastric bleeding, ulcers of the small intestine and swelling of the limbs (7).
Cumin (Cuminum cyminum)
To say that cumin is vital for curries, would be an understatement. In 2015 the UK was warned of a potential increase of curry prices due to a shortage of cumin. The Indian state of Gujarat produces 75% of the world’s cumin and was hit by a long and hot drought, which caused the prices to soar (8).
Cumin is a member of the parsley family, and is commonly mistaken for caraway seeds because of its shape and colour. It is fried in oil together with chilies, onions, fenugreek and other base ingredients to lend the curry an earthy aroma and flavour. In other parts of the world, this spice is included into the dough to produce aromatic, and healthy, sourdough or wheat rye breads. The French and Dutch commonly use cumin to flavour their cheeses. Cumin is a quintessential spice in Mexican cuisines, and is a must in taco seasoning. Indians have been drinking hot cumin infusion for centuries to rid the common cold and digestive problems.
Cumin seeds and powder. (Source: http://www.tablespoon.com/-/media/Images/Articles/PostImages/2011/10/week3/2011-10-09-cumin-586×322.jpg)
Diet is extremely important in the management of diabetes, and has been so even before the introduction of therapeutic insulin. Even today, a large portion of the world still relies on traditional medicines from plant sources to control diabetes. Cumin is one such spice that has shown to be hypoglycaemic (reduces blood glucose) (9).
Moreover, in experimental mice, cumin has shown to fight gastric and colon cancers. Klebsiella pneumoniae, the bacteria known to cause severe lung infections and resistant to multiple antibiotics, is surprisingly inhibited by cumin. This tiny spice is also rich in iron and known to enhance appetite (10).
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum)
Coriander is a unique spice because both, the leaves and the seeds, are commonly used in curries. It is available throughout the year and smells similar to sage.
Coriander leaves, seeds and powder. (Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/coriander_seeds)
Garam masala, a spice blend added to dishes such as rogan josh and certain variations of chicken curry, is a mixture of coriander seeds, peppercorns, mace and a few other spices. Also known as Chinese parsley, coriander leaves are used commonly as garnishing in other Asian cuisines. The traditional Middle Eastern and Southern Indian biriyanis are cooked with copious amounts of coriander and mint leaves. In the western world, the leaves are called cilantro and added to guacamole and gremolata.
Garam masala powder. (Source: http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2016/04/garam-masala-recipe.html)
Rogan josh. A lamb dish originated from Persia cooked using garam masala. (Source: http://www.food.com/recipe/rogan-josh-211487)
Aside from the aroma and mild citrus flavour, coriander also adds other goodness, mainly medicinal, to the food. The plant contains a compound called linalool, which has been shown to be anti-cancerous (11). Being a rich source of iron, fresh coriander juice is useful in managing anemia. B-carotene, which is important for vitamin A production and without which conditions such as night blindness may occur, is also abundant in coriander (12). The feeding of coriander seeds to mice with raised blood cholesterol caused significant decrease in the cholesterol levels (13). The consumption of coriander decoction stimulates insulin production and causes increased metabolism of glucose, thereby providing an effective management of diabetes (14).
In conclusion, the curry is a delicious medicine. Carefully blended to satiate and heal at the same time. So, slurp it up!
- Anternite Shanthi Jesuthasan, Deepthi Inoka Uluwaduge. (2017). Ethnobotanics used in folk medicine of Tamil culture in Sri Lanka: a scientific review. Journal of Integrative Medicine, 15(1).
- Ishita Chattopadhyay, Kaushik Biswas, Uday Bandyopadhyay and Ranajit K. Banerjee. (2004). Turmeric and curcumin: Biological actions and medicinal applications. Current Science, 87(1).
- Gao Liu, Tian Xiang, Quan-Feng Wu and Wei-Xing Wang. (2016). Curcumin suppresses the proliferation of gastric cancer cells by downregulating H19. Oncology Letters, 12(6).
- Alessandra N. Bazzano, Rebecca Hofer, Shelley Thibeau, Veronica Gillispie, Marni Jacobs, Katherine P. Theall. (2016). A Review of Herbal and Pharmaceutical Galactagogues for Breast-Feeding. Ochsner Journal, 16.
- Anaguiven Avalos-Soriano, Ricardo De la Cruz-Cordero, Jorge L. Rosado, Teresa Garcia-Gasca. (2016). 4-Hydroxyisoleucine from Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum): Effects on Insulin Resistance Associated with Obesity. Molecules, 21.
- Sima Younesy, Sedigheh Amiraliakbari, Somayeh Esmaeili, Hamid Alavimajd, Soheila Nouraei. (2014). Effects of Fenugreek Seed on the Severity and Systemic Symptoms of Dysmenorrhea. Journal of Reproduction and Infertility 15(1).
- K Srinivasan. (2005). Plant foods in the management of diabetes mellitus: Spices as beneficial antidiabetic food adjuncts. International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, 56(6).
- H. B. Sowbhagya. (2013). Chemistry, Technology, and Nutraceutical Functions of Cumin (Cuminum cyminum L): An Overview. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, (53).
- Jie Zheng, Yue Zhou, Ya Li, Dong-Ping Xu, Sha Li, Hua-Bin Li. (2016). Spices for Prevention and Treatment of Cancers. Nutrients, 8(495).
- S. Bhat, P. Kaushal, M. Kaur, H. K. Sharma. (2013). Coriander (Coriandrum sativum L.): Processing, nutritional and functional aspects. African Journal of Plant Science, 8(1).
- Dhanapakiam P, Joseph JM, Ramaswamy VK, Moorthi M, Kumar AS. (2008). The cholesterol lowering property of coriander seeds (Coriandrum sativum): mechanism of action. Journal of Environmental Biology, 29(1).
- Rajeshwari U, Andallu B. (2011). Medicinal benefits of coriander (Coriandrum sativum L). Spatula DD, 1(1).