PART II: The ABCs of Middle-Eastern Spice Medicines from Dill to Ginger

galangal root image
Dried galingal root is a Middle East spice great for nausea and flatulence.

In Mama Nazima’s Jewish-Iraqi Cuisine, author Rivka Goldman mentions that her mother cooked soup to help invalids regain strength. Well, all the recipes involve spices: curry, black or red pepper, turmeric, ginger, cloves, and cumin. Mama Nazima, with her rich fund of folk wisdom, knew that these spices are anti-inflammatory, aid digestion, and promote blood circulation. Simmered for an hour or so with the main ingredients, they infuse their properties into the soup, delivering a stronger medicinal dose than mere tea.

And who doubts how delicious spices make food? While we suspect that the warm fragrance of cumin wafts through all Middle Eastern cooking, there’s plenty of room for other spices, some more pungent and some less. Check our previous post on PART I: The ABCs of Middle Eastern Spices to see spices A through C.

dill seed imageD is for Dill. People usually think of dill as the frondy green that flavors pickles, salads, and fish, but the seeds (actually they’re the fruit) also add flavor to cooked foods. In Iran, they are cooked with pulses, especially fava beans. Consider that dill seeds, like most dried spices, aid digestion and combat flatulence; it makes sense. A very weak tea of dill seeds helps children with colic.

E is for…sorry, we didn’t find a Middle Eastern spice beginning with E. But there is

Fennel. fennel seed imageThis native of the Mediterranean is known for its light-green, succulent bulb and, more recently among gourmands, for the flavor of its pollen. But fennel seeds are a pleasant addition to the spice cabinet, used with discretion in bread and sausages. As medicine, they work like dill and anise to relieve colic and indigestion. Fennel seeds as tea are also diuretic. And fleas apparently hate them. We don’t know how effective crushed fennel seeds are to treat a flea infestation, but it might work as a preventative.

Fenugreek. Who in the Middle East doesn’t know hilbeh (Hebrew) or hulbah (Arabic)? There is some speculation that the name comes from halav – milk – because of it’s powerful stimulating action on nursing mothers. Yemenite and Ethiopian men regard fenugreek as an aid to virility and make sure to consume a fiery, goopy relish made from the seeds as often as they can. The problem with eating fenugreek is that the characteristic pungent odor transfers to the eater’s sweat almost immediately. But maybe over the centuries the odor of fenugreek has become pleasantly associated with the presence of the beloved.

Galangal is the dried root whose photograph is at the top of this post. It has a fiery, ginger-like taste. Like ginger, it relieves nausea, vomiting, flatulence, and indigestion. We like to grate a little in to curry mixes or to season chicken – along with garlic and lemon.

fresh garlic imageOh, yes, Garlic. Sometime in March, the season for fresh garlic begins. You can buy ropes of it to hang up in a breezy place. It makes the whole house smell like a salami, but how worthwhile it is. Leaving the culinary uses of garlic aside, how can you pass up a spice (herb, really) so powerfully medicinal? Garlic is antiseptic – rub some on a kitchen cut. It’ll sting, but the wound won’t get infected. As a cold preventative and remedy, it really does work. Garlic reduces cholesterol and hypertension; it’s antioxidant and brings inflammation down. If you protest that garlic on the breath is a guaranteed way to alienate people and make enemies – nowadays odorless garlic capsules are available in drugstores and health food stores.

Feeling nauseated and sick? Try chewing a slice of Ginger for a few minutes. The nausea should go away. But pregnant women be warned: since ginger is a strong blood mover, it can cause miscarriage. We have known women to begin menstruating early after eating soup with ginger in it, or  to have a period after they thought menopause had finally set in, after drinking ginger-flavored mead.

So we recommend ginger for nausea that comes from travel sickness or stomach flu. Ginger is also an expectorant – helps stuck mucus to move from the respiratory tract.  And like most of the spices mentioned in this series, it relieves flatulence and indigestion. Ginger warms the body,  a comforting thing when you’re down with a cold.ginger root image

(Left: Fresh ginger root.)

And of course you can go back to the beginning and read PART I: The ABCs of Middle Eastern Spices.

You’ll enjoy these food-related posts:
Surprising salt
Chicory, Traditional Middle-Eastern Greens
Two Winter Salads

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