Jasmine Hemsley shares her five go-to Ayurveda spices she always has in her kitchen.
One of the central elements of Ayurvedic cooking is nature’s medicine cabinet of herbs and spices — which can be used to help bring the body into balance, as well as making your food taste delicious. I have many favourite spice combinations that I like to cook with, which I detail in my book East by West, but I’ve selected five of my go-to spices, each with its own health-boosting properties to get you going. As with everything in life, you can have too much of a good thing, so enjoy a little of a variety of spices in your everyday dishes as part of a healthy balanced lifestyle rather than going overboard when you’re feeling less than your best — after all, the dose makes the medicine… and the poison!!!
1. Black pepper
This is definitely one of the more familiar spices here in the West, and on restaurant tables and in homes all around the world, but do we ever stop to think about what it actually brings to the table apart from flavour?! Not only does it work like salt in enhancing the flavour of dishes (try a fresh grind on a strawberry for a taste sensation, or my black pepper, prune and sesame seed chutney from East by West page 236), but that fiery flavour also creates heat in the body that works to liven up the Agni or digestive fire, helping your body to break down food. It is known to have cleansing and antioxidant properties, and is a must-do combo if you’re cooking with turmeric in order to make the active ingredients in the yellow spice more available to your body.
Ginger is a wonder spice: it helps with nausea (take note for travelling!), digestion and joint pain, and is anti-inflammatory and antibacterial. Drink a ginger infusion to help clear congestion and wake up your taste buds or chew on raw ginger with lime and salt from East by West (page 245) before eating to help you boost your Agni or digestive fire — especially if you’ll be asking for a lot from it when there’s a feast or late-night eating on the cards! You can also carry around my ginger anise chews (page 103) for a more portable option. And don’t forget dried ginger — add a pinch of this to shop-bought porridges when you’re on the move, pop it into a cup of tea to give it a chai feel, or sprinkle it into salad dressings at restaurants, or just anywhere you fancy to boost the internal heat of your body.
Also known as hing, this spice is definitely less common in Western households, but it’s a valuable addition to your pantry. It is quite pungent — a bit like onion or garlic — and I liken it to bouillon in both looks, flavour and aroma. A little goes a long way but it’s a powerful ally, helping to make beans and lentils more digestible (alongside a long thorough cook). It has a carminative effect on the body, helping to reduce gas and congestion, and has anti-viral properties as well.
Cloves are wonderfully flavourful in sweets and hot drinks — try my breakfast spiced apples for a warming bowl to start the day. Cloves have traditionally been used to help freshen your breath, ease toothache thanks to their numbing effect, and prevent tooth decay, as well as relieve headaches and gas. I like to add them to my homemade respiratory remedy (page 253) along with other healing spices and always carry a few in my pocket for car or motorway journeys, where I can easily become a bit car sick if I’m not careful. Just pop a couple in your mouth and chew! They have a strong medicinal flavour, a bit like perfume or soap, and indeed were extremely valuable in time immemorial as an essential addition to the medicine cabinet for all the reasons above.
I love cumin for how versatile and distinct it is — it works just as well in my soft boiled eggs with cumin courgette and broccoli dippers as it does in beetroot soup (or any beetroot dish for that matter) — instantly taking an everyday dish up a notch. Like the other spices on this list, cumin helps liven up your digestion and relieve gas and bloating, while improving circulation and metabolism. Interestingly, it’s great for menstruation as it helps to relieve cramps, and new mothers may find it helpful for promoting breast milk production. It’s no wonder it’s the second most-used spice in the world — from Morocco to India all the way to your kitchen. If you can, buy whole seeds and grind them fresh as you need them in a pestle and mortar or spice grinder.
Read more about Jasmine’s journey into sustainability in her Life As I Know it interview.