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Secrets of a seasonings box
That small pinch of jeera you take from the masala dabba is meant to do more than just enhance the flavour of your curry. Spices have other great spin-offs : they have some lesser known health properties.
Call it tadka, vaghar, vagarne or popu, the Indian seasoning is a ubiquitous process in almost every Indian recipe. And the seasoning box - typically, a round steel box containing whole spices in little bowls with tiny spoons - is a standard fixture in every Indian kitchen. But the little grains of spice add more than aroma and flavour to our diet. Almost all spices contain antioxidants of various kinds. The antioxidants help to scavenge free radicals from our body and enhance our immune system. Spices also contain soluble fibres which help lower cholesterol, maintain blood sugar levels and control weight.
However, one must limit the use of spices in certain health conditions. For instance, cumin, coriander and fenugreek seeds should not be consumed in excess by kidney patients because they contain high levels of potassium. But if you are fit, sprinkle it generously for flavour and much more.
MUSTARD SEEDS (sarson or rai)
These little black grains find their way into cuisines across India, but are a particular favourite with Bengalis. "Mustard seeds are a good source of protein, fibre, iron, zinc and mono unsaturated fatty acid (MUFA). They are also high in magnesium and phosphorus, " says Bangalore-based dietician Sheela Krishnaswamy. Mustard seeds also contain allyl isothiocyanate, which inhibits the growth of cancer cells.
CUMIN SEEDS (jeera)
An excellent source of iron, jeera is favoured for its distinct, yet not overpowering flavour. It is virtually indispensable in North Indian cooking be it dal, sabzi or that buffet staple: jeera rice. Down south, it is a part of the aromatic rasam powder. Use it generously as it is high in calcium, magnesium and phosphorus. And it's also a home remedy for flatulence and improved digestion.
FENUGREEK SEEDS (methi)
Fenugreek seeds are used for their unique flavour, whether as a part of the dosa batter or the Bengali-Oriya spice mix 'panch phoran'. It can leave a slightly bitter aftertaste, so it is best used in small quantities. "Fenugreek is very good for lactating mothers when it is used in ladoos. It induces lactaction and also helps balance the insulin level in the blood, " says Dr Nupur Krishnan, director of Mumbai-based nutrition clinic Biologics Healthcare.
CAROM SEEDS OR THYMOL SEEDS (ajwain)
A favourite in Gujarat and UP, carom seeds are tossed into an array of dishes, from kadhis to simple sabzis. Some even mix it in the dough for rotis, puris and samosas. Its one big plus: it boosts digestion. So if you're bingeing on some seriously rich food, either sprinkle some carom seeds into the seasoning or into a glass of buttermilk to make the satiated post-meal smile last. There's also the grandmother's recipe: season carom seeds in ghee and mix with rice to ease an upset tummy.
NIGELLA OR ONION SEEDS (kalonji)
Nigella seeds are typical to North Indian cooking and their peppery pungent flavour makes them a spice you either love or hate. "Nigella seeds contain some amounts of calcium and potassium. They are believed to have anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic and anti-bacterial properties, " says Krishnaswamy. They also contain phytonutrients that help in iron absorption.
FENNEL SEEDS (saunf)
Fennel is used liberally in pickles as well as in seasoning to liven up even something as dull as a cabbage sabzi. And if they aren't a part of your meal, chew on them post-dinner, with or without sugar. Fennel, like carom, is favoured primarily for its digestive properties. The sweetened version that is more commonly available is not recommended for its high sugar level.
SESAME SEEDS (til)
Sesame seeds are a good source of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron and vitamin E. They are recommended to help relieve menstrual pain and skin problems. "There are two kinds of sesame seeds. The black sesame seeds, commonly used in chikki and ladoos, are good for anemic patients. White sesame seeds, used in dishes during the festival of Sankranti, are rich in calcium, " says Dr Krishnan.
The first home remedy you turn to for any dental trouble or that nagging cough, the clove is most commonly used in pulao. It contains a fair amount of calcium, iron and zinc. "Clove helps in the treatment of diarrhea, indigestion, hernia, ring worms, fungal infections and athletes foot, " says Dr Krishnan. "Eugenol, which gives the clove its aroma, helps prevent arterial blood clotting, which helps prevent heart attacks. "
Spices don't need very specific conditions or temperatures for storage, but if stored carelessly, they lose colour, taste and aroma. To increase their shelf life, store spices in cool, dry places away from direct exposure to bright light, heat, and moisture. Avoid storing spices too close to the stove, oven, dishwasher or refrigerator, where rising steam or heat can come into contact with them. Spices must be stored in airtight containers to protect them from moisture and to preserve the oils that give them their rich flavour and aroma. Try to buy small quantities of the spices so that they stay fresh.
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