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My mother (and almost all the Indian women from her generation) had a “masala dabba” in their kitchen.
What is a masala dabba? It’s a popular spice storage container widely used in Indian kitchens. It’s a traditional, Indian stainless steel spice box placed inside which are smaller, round pots (often seven), a lid, and a spice spoon.
You see, spices have been used as staple dietary additives for a long time in India.
I remember my mom used spices based on several factors, like food combination, seasons, availability, and cuisine. She used them in her cooking to enhance the taste and potency of the food. There were a few that were her year-round favorites—I refer to them as her perennials. But she cooked and fed us honoring the seasons in mind. I also saw her use spices and herbs in making home remedies for everyday ailments. Be it nausea, cold, congestion, diarrhea, body ache, she turned to her apothecary, which was her spice cabinet and masala dabba. And they worked so effectively!
Ayurveda reminds us that spices and herbs aren’t just used to make the food aromatic and delicious. Aside from culinary purposes, spices play a big role in healing the body. Be it burns, cuts, indigestion, nausea, diarrhea, skin rashes, heartburns to diabetes, heart diseases, disrupted functioning of the thyroid malfunctioning to complicated diseases. An understanding of what spices work best for your Ayurvedic dosha and the season helps the process of healing.
Given we are in Kapha season, which is late winter to early spring, let’s look at what spices can be good for this time.
It’s the change in seasons when most people fall sick. The accumulated Kapha includes blockages and toxins, which may contribute to common imbalances, such as indigestion, allergies, brain fog, colds, and flu. Several staples from our pantry’s spice cabinet can support the mind and body.
In general, people with predominantly Kapha dosha are fortunate when it comes to spices because most spices are wonderful for Kapha. In fact, Kapha is the only dosha that can usually handle fiery hot foods. Spices help to strengthen the digestive fire and can improve overall metabolism—something Kaphas often struggle with.
In Kapha season, it’s not uncommon to experience Kapha imbalances even if your dominant dosha isn’t Kapha.
Here are my five of my favorite spices for this season:
Curry leaves (Kari/Kadi Patta in Hindi) is abundantly popular in many Indian homes, especially in Southern India. My mother had a plant in her home, and I have the fondest memory of plucking curry leaves for sambar, upma, poha, and other dishes. Curry leaves are so aromatic and have the ability to transform even the most basic dishes into something scintillating. I buy them at the Indian grocery store.
Curry leaves are loaded with nutrition. A distinct constituent of curry leaves is carbazole alkaloids. Many studies show that these alkaloids have antioxidant properties. They help to prevent oxidative stress in the body. They also contain anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties as well. It is healthy for the eyes and hair. The roots and stem are also of great importance in Ayurvedic preparations and treatments.
In Ayurvedic medicine, curry leaves are considered to have antidiabetic, antioxidant, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, anticarcinogenic, and hepatoprotective (capability to protect the liver from damage) properties. They are carminative, and they also help with indigestion, diarrhea, and constipation. They assist with lessening dandruff as well as acne and can be used for hair care. It helps in cleansing the body by flushing out harmful toxins from the body. It also helps in burning unwanted fat, thus promoting weight loss.
Did you know that curry leaves are good for eyesight too? They are also used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat skin infections, burns. Only thing: curry leaves can aggravate Pitta.
I love fenugreek (Methi Dana in Hindi) because this spice has so many uses in the kitchen from a culinary standpoint. People use its fresh and dried seeds, leaves, twigs, and roots as a spice, flavoring agent, and supplement. I add fenugreek leaves to stir-fry veggies. Add a few seeds of fenugreek seeds to season veggies. My mother would make organic hair wash at home and she would add fenugreek to it. She also made an oil decoction for scalp massage which included fenugreek seeds.
Fenugreek can promote weight loss, aid in appetite control, lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and raise sperm count. Fenugreek may help stimulate breast milk production and ease the flow. It can lower inflammation and the risk of heart and blood pressure conditions. Fenugreek may help increase low testosterone and sperm levels.
Studies show that at least four compounds in fenugreek have antidiabetic properties. Fenugreek seeds also help ease menstrual cramps, reduce arthritis pain, and treat sluggish and gaseous digestion. Fenugreek or methi dana in water is good for liver, kidneys, and metabolism. It also helps with skin problems.
Fenugreek can increase pitta. As a known hypoglycemic, there might be a positive interaction, and it is advisable to monitor patients on diabetic medication.
Turmeric’s benefits are numerous. Considered one of the wonder spices of Ayurveda, its strong yellow color signifies its use as a liver herb that is good at drying damp and moving stagnation in the blood. Turmeric is great during springtime for its digestive support, liver detoxification, inflammatory properties, and immune-boosting ability. It’s antibacterial and anti-inflammatory.
I add a pinch of turmeric to most Asian curries, stir-fry, or even baked items. Even if you are making scrambled eggs or vegetable fried rice, try adding a small pinch of turmeric. It doesn’t alter the taste and adds health benefits to the dish.
Bring more turmeric into your life in spice blends for cooking as well as in teas. Why?
Turmeric helps with all intestinal infections and mucus conditions. Clinical trials have proven its efficacy at treating dyspepsia and stomach ulcers. It’s traditionally used in diabetes to clear ama, Kapha, and excess fat tissue. Turmeric is also considered a “blood purifier.” I am sure you have seen, if not used, turmeric in face masks. It’s supposed to clear systemic toxemia and beautify the skin. Turmeric is also useful for managing gynecological issues.
As a kid, warm milk with turmeric was a standard beverage served to all age groups if you hurt yourself or had body ache. It lowers inflammation in the joints and strengthens muscles, tendons, and joints. Turmeric nourishes the heart and is an excellent antibiotic used in fevers and sore throat. It’s also excellent for reducing pain in topical application in bruises, sprain, and infection.
Ayurveda asks to be vigilant with turmeric if gallstones are present. In those trying to conceive or pregnant, turmeric is used with caution at medicinal doses.
Mustard seed is a warming spice that pacifies Kapha. It’s flavorful, and I love the sound of mustard seeds crackling in ghee. It makes for a delicious seasoning in savory meals. Ayurveda teaches us that mustard seeds clear food accumulations caused by low agni, high Kapha, and ama. It also helps clear out white, sticky phlegm from the respiratory tract.
Mustard seeds also clear sluggish congestion due to excessive intestinal mucus. They are beneficial in breathing problems, like bronchitis, asthma, and pneumonia. Mustard seeds are also helpful in lowering pain and swelling.
One of my favorite dishes is “Sarson wali Machli” aka fish cooked in mustard curry that my mom used to make. I miss her and her cooking to date. But this is one dish that no one else can prepare the way Mom did (maybe it’s the daughter’s bias?). It’s delicious, satiating, warming, nourishing but also heating. Beautiful during Kapha season but can increase Pitta during the summer months.
People who tend to have high inflammation and Pitta should be mindful of their consumption of mustard seeds.
Ginger has an abundance of healing properties. In Ayurveda, ginger is known as the universal medicine benefitting everybody and all diseases. It is so good for the digestive system, respiratory system, and circulatory system. My mother had two dozen ginger-based home remedies for everyday issues related to respiration and digestion.
It can destroy toxins, prevent nausea, warm up the body, strengthen, agni, help with digestion and so much more. Hot ginger tea is helpful for menstrual cramps. Ginger helps reduce the sensation of pain. It soothes nerves, improves circulation, clears mucus, relieves gas, induces sweating, and increases the secretion of saliva.
Ginger is often used in Ayurveda to treat Kapha disorders, such as sinus congestion, impaired digestion, and obesity.
The few situations in which ginger is contraindicated are in cases of hyperacidity; during any form of hemorrhage (including menstruation); vertigo; and chronic skin disease. Caution during pregnancy as ginger moves apana vayu downward.
In my last essay, for Elephant Journal, I write about how spices can heal our gut, mood, and emotions—according to Ayurveda. Experiment with flavors. Feel free to experiment with a wide variety of new and exotic spices. Experiment with what feels good in your mind-body. Pay attention to how spices make you feel overall.
“My mother cooked like a scientist. She had a giant Chinese-style cleaver that she chopped with, and a cupboard full of spices.” ~ Kamala Harris
If you’d like to improve your overall well-being, you can work with Sweta here.