Ballerina-turned-chef Natasha MacAller is excited about the health benefits of spices.
Her new book Spice Food Heroes explores the different healing properties of 30 spices - both everyday and exotic - which she and other chefs (including Peter Gordon) have incorporated into inventive recipes.
Storage of your spices is very important - both for health benefits and taste, MacAller says.
They should be sealed tightly – preferably in glass – and stored in a cold, dark place.
“The worst one is the very beautiful rack of spices over your hob – they will lose their value very quickly.”
Ground spices are best used within six months (except cardamom, which should be used within three months).
If you can, buy whole spices (which last up to five years) and choose organic - especially with root-based spices such as turmeric and ginger.
“If you open your jar of spice and you don’t smell anything – it’s over. Dump it and get a new one.”
The most studied spice so far is one that's been used medicinally for thousands of years - turmeric.
The Asian relative of ginger is currently being trialled both as a treatment for Alzheimer’s and natural pain relief for athletes (it’s a component of Paracetomol).
“Just adding as little as a quarter of a teaspoon to your food a day can help decrease inflammation and liver support.”
MacAller says that as turmeric is fat-soluble, it's best to eat it along with a little fat.
“Have a little bit of nut milk or butter or oil or something.”
The benefits of turmeric (and other spices) can be intensified by good old black pepper.
“Add a little more peppercorn to your food, I tell everyone.”
She also rates New Zealand's own kawakawa, a relative of black pepper.
“Kawakawa is one of the pepper leaves that has piperine - the active compound in black pepper - which is what we want to have more of.”
She recommends rosemary to aid memory.
“I make a little tea using cocoa powder and rosemary to sip on. I used quite a bit while I was studying and writing this book to keep the memory going – and it smells absolutely marvellous.”
And considering cinnamon not only for flavour.
“Add cinnamon to something, have it on your morning coffee. You don’t need a lot and it has great, great benefits.”
Fenugreek - a spice used in classic Indian curry - can help lower blood sugar and even help balance hormones.
MacAller recommends using it for sweet dishes.
“When it’s very, very lightly toasted it gives off a maple syrup aroma."
Other helpful spices are hibiscus - “It helps the fat pass through the body a bit faster and is high in Vitamin C”, and citrus zest - “Believe it or not, there’s a study on putting some citrus zest in your black tea, and that helps to stave off skin cancer".
She refers to star anise as 'the fighter spice' - “It helps colds and coughs and lowers blood sugar."
- tamarind “Yes, that’s a spice”
- chilli pepper
- star anise
- horseradish (wasabi)
- cocoa (cacao) - “The Mexican hot chocolate which has peppercorn and chili, cinnamon and lovely cacao – that I would recommend.”