Editor’s note: Today, Shuli Madmone, owner of Whole Spice at Oxbow Public Market, begins writing weekly columns about ways to spice up your cooking.
Science is confirming what ancient cultures knew instinctively: Combining certain foods with herbs and spices can both offset the harmful or undesirable effects of those foods, and balance the diet when shortages lead to overeating from one food source.
It makes sense. Nature has given all foods, whether plant or animal, the ability to protect themselves from other predators — including us humans. Hot, spicy flavors that bite our tongues, bitter tastes that appall our palates, fats and sugars teasing us to death, gassy foods that — well, you know — are all weapons against being chewed up and swallowed.
Hungry humans long ago developed strategies to disarm these defenses and enjoy the benefits of a varied diet, and we’re now learning why it works.
Cinnamon, for instance, has been shown to help lower blood sugar levels and reduce inflammation caused by consuming sugar. It’s no surprise that the sugary-sweet American diet often includes cinnamon in doughnuts, pies and other treats.
In the Middle East, India and other cultures, meat and dairy often will be eaten with turmeric and black pepper. This combination helps to mitigate cholesterol levels and inflammation caused by animal products and sugar.
In Asia, ginger accompanies both sushi and fresh or cooked vegetables. A warm spice, it balances their cooling properties. Ginger also helps to reduce gas produced by eating raw vegetables, and is a traditional remedy for nausea.
To offset their gassy potential and add a flavor bonus, Egyptian fava beans are traditionally seasoned with cumin, as in my recipe for ful medames below. For the same reason, Mexican bean dishes are cooked with cumin or epazote.
Hot chilis warm and speed our blood flow and metabolism when eating a cooling meal, such as cucumber salad, or a heavy meal with meats and cheeses.
Middle Eastern bakers add nigella seed to bread to limit the many side effects of eating baked goods — raised blood sugar, weight gain and acne, just to name a few.
Bitter herbs like thyme, za’atar and oregano and others help to balance acid-forming foods like meat, dairy, fat and grains, and promote digestive enzymes.
So when adapting a traditional recipe, from your own culture or from another, never dismiss the need for herbs and spices. They can do you some real good, while adding aroma, color and flavor.
I don’t claim that spices and herbs can cure diseases. But regular use of traditional spices in your food will often bring you closer to better health.
This traditional Egyptian appetizer is often served with cut fresh tomato, cucumber and onion, along with some olives. Add protein and flavor with a soft-boiled or hard-boiled egg, the former cut in halves and the latter in quarters.
My other serving suggestion is to share it with loved ones: For me, it makes the food tastier and the gathering more joyful when you can see each other’s eyes across the plate.
1 16-oz. can cooked small fava beans, with liquid
1/4 cup tahini paste
1/4 tsp. sea salt, or more if the canned favas are unsalted
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 tsp. toasted cumin powder
1 tsp. California chili powder
½ tsp. crushed Aleppo chili
4 medium-sized garlic cloves, smashed
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 tbsp. of chopped fresh parsley for garnish
Place fava beans with liquid in a pot and bring to boil. Crush with a potato press till partially mashed. Add tahini paste and mix well to reach a hummus-like consistency. Thin with water if it is too chunky.
Mix the next seven ingredients together to make a salsa.
Spread beans on a plate and add the salsa in the center. Garnish with parsley and enjoy with good friends and family.