Ginger and other spices can help fortify against disease

Spices, such as ginger, can make for a soothing and healing tea.
Take a sip of steaming ginger tea and feel it start to soothe. A tingling on the tip of your tongue quickly builds toward the back of your mouth. Your throat warms, you swallow, and that spicy warmth travels down to your stomach, like the trail of heat from a shot of Scotch, but with comfort instead of a burn or a buzz.

With flu season upon us, ginger and other spices can do more than enliven our food; they can help nourish us and maintain our health. Many cultures prize ginger's medicinal effects, and a University of Michigan study last year confirmed what every pregnant woman with morning sickness or traveler with motion sickness knows (or should): Ginger can help ease nausea. A UCLA study in 2001 found that a chemical in turmeric, so popular in Indian cooking, can help fight infection (as well as slow the degenerative effects of Alzheimer's disease). And the British have been studying garlic's antibacterial effects.

As reassuring as that might be to the rest of us, it is anything but surprising to such cooks as Madhur Jaffrey, who grew up in India, or Nina Simonds, who lived and studied throughout Southeast Asia. They instinctively add ginger, garlic and turmeric to their cooking to warm the body during flu season and help protect it against infection.

Versatile spices

Jaffrey, the author of Climbing the Mango Trees (Random House, 2006), a memoir of her childhood in India, said that using spices to boost one's health is something Indians learn about from a young age.

"We take ginger for a sore throat, and turmeric is known for its antiseptic properties," Jaffrey says. "We would rub turmeric on our face to keep the mosquitoes away. And if you had a piece of fish that wasn't quite as fresh as you'd like, you'd rub it with salt and turmeric."

Her new book includes a family recipe for cauliflower with turmeric, "a good dish to eat in flu season." For a cold, she's a firm believer in a bracing cup or two of ginger tea every day.

"The last time I had a bad cold, my aunt made me ginger tea that was an infusion of ginger, fennel, black pepper and Thai basil," she says. "In two days, the cold had vanished."

Simonds also subscribes to ginger tea's restorative properties, although she warns people not to go overboard with any remedy. Last year, she remembers, "I was starting my book tour (for her cookbook Spices of Life) and couldn't afford to get sick. So I drank ginger tea, chewed on garlic and ate some hot peppers on the side." Ginger's stomach-soothing properties went only so far against those chili peppers and that garlic: "All I got was indigestion."

The Chinese, she says, have long believed in the tonic-like effects of various spices. Ginger, which was introduced to China from India, is used to ease stomach and intestinal ailments and is valued for its warming properties. She still remembers getting ill when she first arrived in China and being prescribed the Chinese version of Jewish chicken soup: chicken broth loaded with scallions and ginger.

"It's something I now make for myself and my family, especially during winter," she says. "Even if I cheat and buy chicken broth at the store, I boil it for 15 or 20 minutes with half a dozen slices of fresh ginger and a little rice wine. Sometimes I add shiitake mushrooms, too, because they're said to help boost the immune system.

"There's a reason these recipes have been handed down," she adds. "They work."

Australian pumpkin soup

  • 8 cups organic fat-free vegetable stock
  • 6 cups butternut squash (from 1 large, 1 medium and 1 small), cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 medium white onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon finely minced ginger
  • 2 medium cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 1 tablespoon curry powder (may substitute a mixture of 2 teaspoons curry powder and 1 teaspoon turmeric)
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped thyme leaves
  • 1 12.3-ounce package firm organic tofu, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 3 tablespoons to 1 cup light or yellow miso
  • Finely chopped chives or flat-leaf parsley, for garnish

In a large pot over medium-high heat, combine the vegetable stock, squash, onion, ginger, garlic, curry powder and thyme, mixing well. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and cool for about 10 minutes.

Working in batches, pure the soup mixture in a blender or food processor. Add some of the tofu and miso to each batch and pure until it is smooth and no white bits of tofu remain, tasting along the way for saltiness. Strain the soup through a fine-mesh strainer and return to the pot to warm over low heat. To serve, divide among individual bowls and garnish with chives or parsley. Serve hot.

Servings: 4 to 6

From: The Art of Tofu, by Akasha Richmond (Morinaga, 2001).

Ginger-scallion root tea

  • 6 to 8 quarter-size slices ginger root (unpeeled), smashed lightly with the side of a knife
  • 6 to 8 scallions, white parts only
  • 2 to 3 teaspoons raw sugar, honey or maple syrup
  • teaspoon sea salt
  • 2 cups water

Place the ginger slices and scallions in a small pot (preferably glass or ceramic) and add the sweetener, sea salt and water. Bring to a boil over high heat and stir well, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 10 minutes.

Strain and serve hot.

Servings: 2

Adapted from: A Spoonful of Ginger, by Nina Simonds (Knopf, 2002).

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