I have a lot of reasons to praise spice-filled Indian food and its health benefits in this blog. One reason is to present my perspective of growing up as a pizza-loving urban middle-class Indian, who finally became a Masala Dosa craving Indian expat in Italy. I still remember relishing oregano and mustard sauce on my chicken calzone prepared by the nearby Slice of Italy pizza place during my IIT Delhi student days in India. A decade later I eagerly stack up on exotic spices for home-cooked Indian cuisine in Milan. The grass is always greener on the other side is what most people would say about this phenomenal shift in taste. I would say that you only realize the true value of something when you are deprived of it. In other words, absence makes the heart grow fonder!

Spicy Indian food in Europe

Over time, I discovered how to eat healthy on a tight budget by cooking simple food with an assortment of spices. I have always found flavorful hot Indian food perfect for a family meal in winter. Living in Europe for more than 7 years, a visit to my brother’s place in Germany when our parents had visited from India was bound to be very memorable. To have your mom cook you some good food in European winter is a luxury for Indian expats. We had a pretty round dining table mounted with German cutlery and warm Indian food. While it snowed outside in Bavaria, we had Chicken curry, fried vegetable sabzi, lentil-based sambar, chapatis, rice, and fresh yogurt accompanied by some Italian wine for lunch. I would have preferred my favorite spicy Indian Biryani but we had boneless chicken that day. 

The first thing to come to my mind when I think about mixing Italian wine with Indian food is my wonderful stay at Via Alzaia Naviglio Pavese in Milan. In my very first year in Italy, I had to learn a lot from scratch. Fortunately, Puninder my fellow Indian colleague from Bocconi, and I found the perfect place. We moved into an apartment with two wonderful flatmates who would introduce us to Italian culture and traditions. Surprisingly, most of my Italian flatmates have always been very fascinated with my spicy Indian cuisine. We had great fun preparing a plethora of dishes from around the world in the shared housing apartments in Milan.

To cook good spicy food, you must eat good food

As years pass by and you eat good food in different countries, your cooking also evolves. I began to increasingly research Spices to not just discover new flavors but also to understand the medicinal value of my favorite spicy Indian dishes. My online research astonished me.

I now know how to take care of an aching tooth with cloves and garlic and how Asafoetida can be an effective treatment for hysteria, mood swings, chronic anxiety, depression, and stress. Research on the benefits of spices in food and how they became more popular around the world is very interesting.

Spices from across the Seven Seas

Just like today, how people get super excited with lucrative start-ups, historically spices have created similar entrepreneurial zeal.  As explorers discovered new lands, traders took massive risks to make a fortune in the spice trade.

The benefits of spices in food from adding flavors as well as hiding the lack of freshness in meat ensured a steady demand. The profitability and the health benefits of different spices may have even motivated Columbus to find a sea route to India and beyond!

 11 ways to Spice up your life, literally!

Historically, spices from India have always been very much desired in the world. Even today India exports about 900,000 tons of spices and spice products worth over 2.5 billion USD. Chilli, mint and mint products, cumin, spice oils & oleoresins, pepper, turmeric, coriander, small cardamom, curry powder/paste, and fenugreek made up the major spice exports from India. Each of these spices is desired for their unique flavors but they also enhance your diet with various health benefits.

My own Kitchen is stacked with these spices currently:

To understand the medicinal value of spices, I decided to compile my spice research for health benefits. This is just my small list of spices and their health benefits. Spices and health is a topic that has fascinated me for a long time. I hope this information motivates more people to eat healthy while exploring new flavors and tastes.

Spicy Indian food saves trips to the supermarket?

Apart from buying fresh chicken and vegetables we really did not have to bother much about buying other perishable products.

The Bread or Chapatis are made fresh at home from chapati atta or flour. Rice, lentils (for dal), and spices are also dry and hence not very perishable. If purchased in large quantities, the ingredients for Indian cuisine can be very cost-effective. Food processing however has not grown much and hence Indian cuisine is traditionally less processed.

You only buy some English bread or buns if you want to make a sandwich or an omelet for breakfast. It is Chapati, Roti, or Parantha for all other meals. The tomato-onion-spice-oil-based sauce used in many Indian gravy-based dishes can be freshly prepared in the kitchen. Indians living in Europe have however begun using more processed products to help them prepare the meal faster. If you use the tomato Passata meant for Pasta in your chicken curry instead of fresh tomatoes you compromise on taste though.

“Penny saved is a penny earned”- Indian Comfort food Chef

Cost-wise, I could buy 1 kilo of premium Basmati rice for 2 € and 5 kilos of Chapati flour for 3 €. While the rice could feed at least 10 meals, the Chapati flour may even feed a small family for a month. Yes, Indian families can have all the bread they want for less than 3 Euros of flour.

Even the Chicken curry is a great protein-rich dish to feed many people. You could buy a single chicken chop it into small pieces and cook enough spicy flavorful chicken curry to fill several plates. Growing up in India, you tend to usually have a vegetarian-based diet. Chicken, fish, or mutton are special dishes that my family consumed in moderation.

Indian food designed for large families is best served hot. The spices and flavors make a delicious meal out of simple products. I could prepare a delicious dish that will have you licking your fingers just with Potatoes, cumin, oil, and Chapati flour.

Fortunately, I also have some Garam Masala which is a mixture of spices along with packets of spices for dishes like Rasam, Sambar, and Chicken Korma.

Is spicy Indian food good for you?

I had never used Asafoetida before in my cooking. My mom fortunately gave me a packet of this spice which definitely brought in the missing taste in my Vegetarian cooking. Moreover, it supposedly has numerous health benefits including help with breathing problems and also depression.

While Cloves and Garlic may help you with your teeth ailments, turmeric has so many health benefits that it has become an essential part of Indian cuisine.

Indian spices and their medicinal uses keep civilization running in India despite minimal spending on health care. The benefits of Indian traditional food may provide answers on how to eat healthy on a budget.

Hoping the below list of Indian spices and their uses may provide you with some tips on eating healthy.

Medicinal uses of Indian spices

Here is a list of common spices that make Indian food flavorful and healthy. Understanding the medicinal qualities of the things that are used to cook our heritage food is very important. Moreover, understanding metabolism-boosting spices may also explain how to eat healthy to lose weight fast.

SPICE 1: Turmeric

Turmeric is the most commonly used Indian spice. The yellow-colored spice contains Curcumin, a cancer-fighting compound. Curcumin has powerful anti-inflammatory effects and is a very strong antioxidant. However, Turmeric holds Curcumin in about 3% by weight. The easiest way to find Turmeric in Europe is to buy the “Curry” powder that is popularly sold in supermarkets. This mixture of spices usually contains Turmeric, Curry leaves, Coriander, Cumin, Fenugreek, etc.

How to consume Turmeric?

Due to the low solubility of Curcumin in water, mixing turmeric with oil makes it effective. Interestingly, black pepper, which contains piperine can also enhance the Curcumin absorption by the body immensely.

Turmeric in small quantities goes well in any dish like fried vegetables, rice, chicken, fish, and meat. You could also mix it in soups or have a healthy beverage of warm whole milk, honey, and turmeric.

SPICE 2: Cumin

Cumin is very popular in Indian cuisine and the first cumin-based dishes to come to my mind is the Jeera Rice (Rice cooked with tempered cumin) and Aloo Jeera (Potato cubes pan-fried with oil and cumin). While Jeera Rice goes well with Dal, the Aloo Jeera goes wonderful with Chapatis.

How to consume Cumin?

Cumin is usually accompanied by mustard seeds and red chilies in the tempering process to extract essential oils. Tempering is a cooking technique where spices are roasted in oil before being poured into a dish along with the oil.

SPICE 3: Black Pepper

Native to India, Black Pepper has been a very valuable spice during the medieval ages. Apart from providing an interesting flavor, Black pepper could help disguise the lack of freshness in meat products. Black Pepper is filled with several essential minerals and vitamins including manganese, potassium, iron, Vitamins C, K, etc. The entire list of the health benefits of Black Pepper may require another article of its own.

How to consume Black Pepper?

You do not need me to tell you that a pinch of Black Pepper goes well with any salt-based dish.

In any case, these two magic words are all you need to know about Black Pepper in Indian Cuisine: Pepper Chicken. Healthy spices for chicken will always have some pepper included in the list. Pan-frying small pieces of chicken with oil, onions, pepper, salt and turmeric leads to one of my favorite Chicken dishes. You can always spice this dish more with other spices like cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, etc. But as an Indian living in Europe, I have very recently discovered the taste of using minimal amounts of spice in your food.

SPICE 4: Chilli Pepper

Here is an interesting story about Chilli Peppers and how the spice native to Mexico became a favorite in Indian cuisine. Spanish ships traveling across from the Americas to Europe would stop by Lisbon, Portugal on their way home. During the 15th century, just after the Americas were discovered, the Portuguese and the Arabs controlled the trade routes to Asia.

The Portuguese traders may have got hold of this valuable new spice quite early from the Spanish. They quickly introduced it in India. From India, Chilli Pepper would spread across Central Asia, Turkey, and all the way to Hungary where it became the national spice of Paprika. Chilli Pepper contains anti-oxidants and vitamin C and can even help your body to regulate insulin levels.

How to consume Chilli Pepper?

Just like Black Pepper, there are numerous ways how you can use different varieties of chili pepper. Green Chillies often accompany an Indian meal in raw salad form. It is also chopped up and sprinkled as garnishing delicious Indian curries. But my favorite is the Hyderabadi Biryani side dish Mirchi ka Salan that accompanies the Raita (yogurt-based salad with chopped onions, tomatoes, green chilies, and salt).

SPICE 5: Cloves

Cloves are an interesting spice as you can make anodyne (painkillers) using essential oils. Moreover, you can even cure hiccups with it and the Anthelmintic also gets rid of parasitic worms and other parasites from your body.

The spice also adds a wonderful flavor to your food and is present in the Garam Masala.

How to consume Cloves?

Cloves are usually used in spicy Indian food like Mixed Vegetables Korma, Kadai Chicken, or Goan Fish Curry. My favorite is cloves with my milk tea. I have always used cardamom and ginger in my Indian milk tea. But ever since I started using cloves there seems to be no going back. Moreover, the chai has a very refined taste.

SPICE 6: Mustard

Growing up in India, I was often quite confused about mustard. On one hand, we used black mustard seeds in tempering for Indian dishes on the other hand there was yellow-colored mustard sauce shown in cartoons and on American TV. Moreover, there was a North Indian dish called Sarson ka Saag made with mustard leaves which made me even more confused.

Nonetheless, mustard is rich in nutrients like vitamins and minerals and has a long history of medicinal use. Mustards may not only help reduce inflammation, act as an anti-microbial agent, and reduce pain and swelling, but may also have a key role in cancer prevention. There are a lot more health benefits in consuming mustard due to the omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants in it.

How to consume Mustard?

The most common use of black mustard seeds in Indian cooking is in tempering as mentioned earlier. It is quite commonly done for lentil-based dals, curries, and chutneys (Indian sauces). Another source of mustard for Indians is Pickles. You may also find ground mustard in Sambar powder. Sambar is a lentil-based dal dish that also has vegetables in it and is popular in South India. Legend has it that when the Marathas from central India were campaigning in the south, they improvised by using local vegetables in their dal to invent Sambar.

SPICE 7: Cinnamon

Cinnamon is rich in antioxidants and has historically been known for its medicinal properties. It has anti-inflammatory properties and can reduce the risk of heart disease by regulating blood sugar, reduce cholesterol, and blood pressure. Additionally, cinnamon may improve brain function, have anti-microbial properties, and may even offer protection against cancer.

How to consume Cinnamon?

Cinnamon is a must-have when you are cooking some flavorful Indian rice dishes like Biryani or Pulao. You can also add it whole or in ground form to vegetable dishes. Cinnamon is also often used in Indian desserts and sweets.

If you visit Hyderabad, India during the Muslim Ramzan or Ramadan month, then you are bound to encounter the Haleem which is a type of thick sticky stew that is made with meat, lentils, grains, oil/ghee, and spices. The dish is very rich and nutritious and is cooked and pounded for hours. Hence the final product figuratively melts in your mouth. The only hard inedible objects you may find in your haleem may be bones and cinnamon sticks. Everything else is thoroughly homogenized.

SPICE 8: Bay leaves

Bay leaves too have been used historically for their potential health benefits. Being rich in vitamins, they support the immune system, have anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties, may help lower Diabetes and Cholesterol levels, and may help with the common cold and asthma

How to consume Bay leaves?

Bay leaves are called Tej Patta in Hindi and are also popularly known as the Biryani leaves. You just cannot make Biryani without Bay leaves. You discard them however before consuming your food. Bayleaves go well even with soups and stews as they add an interesting flavor.

SPICE 9: Fenugreek

Fenugreek is rich in nutrients including vitamins and minerals. It may control blood sugar, aid digestion, lower cholesterol, and may also have anti-inflammatory properties. A unique feature of Fenugreek is that it may help increase breast milk production in lactating mothers.

How to consume Fenugreek?

Like Mustard, you have both Fenugreek seeds and leaves. The seeds are often roasted or tempered to reduce the bitterness and enhance flavor. The leaves are popularly used in Indian stuffed flatbread called Parathas.

SPICE 10: Cardamom

Cardamom or Elaichi is widely in Indian cuisine in curries, rice-based dishes, and even desserts. It is a quick fix for bad breath and can also help improve digestion by relieving bloating. It also has anti-inflammatory effects, may improve blood pressure, and regulate sugar levels.

How to consume Cardamom?

Growing up in the South of India, I had only come across Green Cardamom. But when I moved to New Delhi, I saw the use of Black Cardamom in many rice dishes. Black cardamom has a stronger smokier flavor which makes it great for savory dishes, while green cardamom is also used in sweet dishes like the Hyderabadi Double Ka Meetha and Kheers. I also like alternating green and black cardamom in my Indian milk-based Chai Tea.

SPICE 11: Asafoetida

Asafoetida is widely known as Hing in Hindi. It is known to be a carminative, a laxative, and even an expectorant which helps in clearing congestion in a person´s airways due to the common cold and flu.

How to consume Asafoetida?

Asafoetida is primarily tempered and used in many vegetarian dishes like Dal, Sambar, and Vegetable curries. Since it is grown in Kashmir, it is also used in the famous Mutton Rogan Josh. Asafoetida can add the Umami flavor to your dish.

Is Indian food spicy?

Yes, Indian food usually has a lot of spices. But it need not always be spicy and you can always minimize the spice in your cooking. You could always choose dishes like a Korma made with yogurt, coconut milk, and almonds if you want something mild. Other dishes like Palak Paneer, Butter Chicken, and Chicken Tikka Masala also tend to be less spicy.

Unless you are eating local Indian food in India where everyone else likes their food to be very spicy, you would normally have the freedom to ask your chef to keep the spices mild.

On the other hand, if you want to eat the spiciest Indian dishes around, you must travel to Hyderabad and try the local Telangana cuisine. The people in Telangana and Andhra love their chilies. They would have a spicy mango pickle along with their spicy curries.

Conclusion: What makes Indian food spicy?

Throughout history, Indian cuisine has mesmerized taste buds and nourished a growing population. Spices aren’t just flavorful additions; they boast a wealth of potential health benefits. From aiding digestion to potentially reducing inflammation, incorporating these spices into your diet can be a delicious way to support your well-being.

So, if you’re looking for a flavorful and healthy meal option, consider exploring the vibrant world of Indian food and spices. With its diverse ingredients, unique spice blends, and focus on fresh flavors, Indian cuisine offers a culinary adventure that’s both delicious and good for you. Spices are more than just chilies as you can prepare delicious Indian desserts with them like the Ras Malai below is made with Indian cottage cheese, Cardamom, and Saffron.

Ras Malai an Indian Ice Spice Dessert
Ras Malai an Indian Ice Spice Dessert!

As a Global Digital Nomad cooking away from home and trying to make new friends, knowledge of spices can be a valuable asset as it can let you charm your new flatmates easily.

Hi, I’m Vineeth Naik

Liberal part time Blogger and full time Researcher with a broad range of experience, professionally and personally in Austria, Italy, UAE & India. Loves Finance, Business & Technology. Cares about society.

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