In the 15th century, Europe was in search of the spice of life. For them, salt was not enough. They also wanted cinnamon, pepper, cumin, nutmeg, ginger and cloves. It was for spices that the Portuguese sailed around the southern tip of Africa to reach India. During this time a pound of Ginger was equal in value to one live sheep.
In Medieval Europe, cinnamon would have been added to a stew of lamb or chicken. Cumin was baked into bread. They would have added ground nutmeg to potato dishes, green beans and soups. Ginger added a warm flavor to meats. Queen Elizabeth I of England is credited with the first gingerbread man. Spices were so valuable that whole economies were built up around their trade. These days, we just settle for salt, pepper and garlic. But are we missing the spice of life?
The foods from India are interesting because of their spices. Their curries are a combination of different flavors that are quite exotic to American palates. The word curry refers to a sauce made from several different spices or it can mean a main dish of vegetables or meat prepared in a sauce. The ingredients used to make a curry can vary widely. There are sweet curries and spicy curries. In French cooking there are different sauces such as bechamel or hollandaise. Here in Texas, we might put cream gravy (white sauce) on meat (or on anything for that matter. We are in Texas!) In Louisiana we find gravy (brown sauce) served on rice. So it is with curry. The word does not refer to any one dish but can refer to a sauce or dishes prepared with a variety of sauces.
Spices used to make curries might include: turmeric, coriander, cumin, ginger, fenugreek, nutmeg, cardamom, cloves, saffron, fennel, cinnamon, cayenne pepper. On the spice aisle, you will find curry powder which is a blend of several spices. This can be a convenient way to introduce some of these different flavors without buying a lot of different spices. In my recipe, I use a curry blend that I purchased from an online retailer, Penzeys. This particular blend contains a nice assortment of spices that are found in many traditional curry recipes. Just remember that a traditional recipe will not use a blended spice but rather different ratios of individual spices.
Most Americans would recognize chicken curry. There are many variations of this wonderful traditional dish. Chicken curry recipes often call for coconut milk. I substitute broth because the sweet flavor of coconut in this savory dish is too much for my palate. Some of the spices in the curry powder itself lend a sweet complimentary flavor without the coconut milk. And coconut milk is a source of saturated fat which I prefer to avoid. Serve this delicious chicken curry on brown basmati rice, a fragrant, long grain rice that features prominently in Indian, Pakistani, and Middle Eastern cuisine. Brown rice is higher in fiber and nutrients than white rice.
Spices are concentrated sources of polyphenols and other natural plant compounds. The polyphenol content in plant foods may be one of the reasons why people who eat a plan-based diet have lower rates of heart disease and cancer.
Spices enrich our food experience without adding extra calories. Tastier foods are more satisfying. And the variety of flavors helps us to reduce our salt intake. Don’t miss out on the spice of life.
Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist with years of experience practicing nutrition therapy in local hospitals and clinics, teaching nutrition and developing healthy recipes. He is a Nacogdoches resident and he helped create the popular TV show Memorial Cooking Innovations celebrating the world of food and health. Memorial Cooking Innovations currently runs in 62 cities and is locally available on Sudden Link cable channel 2 in Nacogdoches.