The "spice-box" is an intrinsic part of an Indian kitchen. Other cultures around the world have their favorite spices and herbs as well. The exotic colors and heady aromas of spices can elevate an ordinary dish into a sublime feast for the sense of sight, smell and taste. What's more, most spices also come with therapeutic properties, so every meal that includes spices can become an experience in enhancing health and well-being.

Ayurveda, the ancient system of healing from India, has been singing the praises of spices as "wonder-foods" for thousands of years. Spices are ingredients in many synergistic Ayurvedic herbal formulations, and an Ayurvedic expert, when giving you advice, is as likely to recommend specific spices to include in your diet as to suggest herbal supplements for you to take. Including all six tastes - sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent - at every main meal is a basic tenet of Ayurvedic dietary wisdom, and spices are a convenient, flavorful way of accomplishing this.

Some general tips for cooking with spices -

Most spices are potent, so a little goes a long way. You want the spices to enhance the flavors of foods, not overpower the whole dish.

When blending several spices in a dish, experiment to find combinations you like. Be adventurous! A good Ayurvedic cookbook can start you out with suggestions for spices especially balancing for mind and body in each season.

Many spices release their flavors and aromas best when saut?ed in Ghee (clarified butter) or oil, some when they are dry-roasted. Be nimble when saut?ing or roasting spices, they tend to burn quickly. Remove from heat when aromas are released and continue stirring or shaking to prevent burning.

Look for organic, non-irradiated spices.

Store spices in airtight containers away from heat and light.

Here's a brief introduction to three major Ayurvedic spices and tips on how to use them. As you experiment with combining them with other spices and different foods, you'll find your own favorite ways to use them.

Turmeric is ubiquitous in Ayurvedic cooking. It contains the flavanoid curcumin, which is known to have anti-inflammatory properties. This all-around wonder spice helps detoxify the liver, balance cholesterol levels, fight allergies, stimulate digestion, boost immunity and enhance the complexion. It is also an antioxidant. Ayurveda recognizes it as a heating spice, contributing bitter, pungent and astringent tastes.

Turmeric is a bright yellow-orange spice, and, used in tiny quantities, imparts a rich color and look to cooked white rice, potatoes or yellow lentils. Add it to the water in which rice or lentils are being cooked. It combines well with other spices such as cumin, coriander, cayenne pepper and cinnamon.

Here's a quick, easy way to enjoy turmeric. Saut? in a tablespoon of Ghee or vegetable oil half a teaspoon of cumin seeds, half a teaspoon of turmeric and half a teaspoon of sweet Hungarian paprika. Remove from heat as the spices start to release their aroma, stir in a cup of diced boiled potatoes. Add salt to taste and garnish with some chopped fresh cilantro. You can substitute other cooked vegetables for the potatoes. Cooked red kidney beans or cooked garbanzos also work well with this spice mixture.

Turmeric can stain fabrics and other materials, so handle carefully.

Cumin is popular in Indian, Mexican and Middle Eastern cuisines. According to Ayurveda, it is a cooling spice. It is supposed to aid digestion and help flush toxins out of the body.

Cumin can be used either as whole seeds or ground, raw or dry-roasted. Ground raw, it is a dull brown color, which is enriched by being saut?ed in Ghee or oil. Powdered dry-roasted cumin is a rich brown in color. Both saut?ing and roasting make the aroma and flavor of cumin come alive. Cumin combines well with a wide range of other spices, including turmeric, ground fennel, ground coriander, ground dry ginger and cinnamon.

Sprinkle ground, dry-roasted cumin on fresh yogurt, add salt to taste, and enjoy at lunch. Or blend yogurt, water (50-50) with ground, dry-roasted cumin and salt to taste for a refreshing lunchtime drink. Called "lassi" in India, this drink is excellent for digestion. This form of cumin can also be combined some minced ginger, lemon juice, salt and black pepper to make a dressing for a warm salad of cooked white beans or lightly steamed shredded carrots. Whole cumin seeds, saut?ed in Ghee, make a flavorful addition to lentil and legume soups. Wholesome and nutritious, these soups can be meals in themselves.

Fennel is another cooling spice. According to Ayurveda, fennel is extremely good for digestion. In India, eating a few fennel seeds after a meal is a common practice.

Fennel seeds are sweetish in taste, and ground fennel works very well in sauces. The seeds can also be saut?ed in Ghee (clarified butter) and added to vegetable dishes. Saut? turmeric, ground cumin, ground ginger and ground fennel in ghee, blend cashews in water to make a watery paste and add to the spices to simmer-cook into a rich sauce for vegetables. Fennel seeds can be baked into cookies and muffins and a small quantity of ground fennel can be added to rice pudding for an exotic flavor.

These are just three gems from the vast treasure-chest of Ayurvedic spices. They work not only as fabulous flavor-enhancers; they come with healing properties as well.

Note ? Ghee, or clarified butter, is a flavorful cooking oil. It is made by cooking butter until all the milk-solids are removed. In Ayurveda, cooking spices in Ghee is considered beneficial because Ghee is an effective "carrier" ? it transports the benefits of the spices to the parts of the body. For recipes using Ghee and spices -

Information provided in this article is solely for the purpose of imparting education on Ayurveda and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or mitigate any disease. If you have a medical condition, please consult a health professional.

Author's Bio: 

Vasu Nargundkar is very interested in holistic healing. She works for Maharishi Ayurveda Products International, a health foods and herbal supplements distributor located in Colorado Springs. Ayurveda is Earth's original health science. She is the editor of Total Health News, a monthly newsletter on Ayurveda published at For more information on Maharishi Ayurveda, recipes using all-natural foods and
other practical advice on living in harmony with nature, please visit