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Indian Spices Pack a Wealth of Delicious Health Benefits

Adobe Stock / Natalia Klenova

Indian food is one of the hottest cuisines on the Main Line­—and it’s healthy in ways you might not know, thanks to its flavorful spices.

What’s for dinner? In a growing number of Main Line homes, the answer is Indian food. These days, there are at least a half-dozen restaurants in Delaware County that specialize in the cuisine. Lower Merion Township is home to six more, and Chester County isn’t far behind.

Ashvini Mashru’s native culture has a different relationship with food than Americans do. Ingredients that taste good also have homeopathic qualities, says the Malvern-based registered dietitian, who was born and raised in India. Such ingredients are critical components of Ayurveda, an ancient, nature-based holistic health system originating in India.

Curcumin—the active ingredient in turmeric, that mustard-colored powder behind the pungent, peppery flavor common in Indian food—is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. Studies published by the Arthritis Foundation reveal that turmeric and curcumin prevent joint inflammation, and a clinical trial of a turmeric supplement in 2010 showed a long-term reduction in pain among patients with osteoarthritis in their knees. In a 2012 study, a curcumin supplement reduced joint pain and swelling in patients with rheumatoid arthritis—doing so better than Diclofenac, a commonly prescribed nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug.

Mashru believes turmeric fends off cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, liver damage and cardiovascular disease. She treats her kids’ coughs and colds with turmeric in warm milk, and the spice can even be used topically. “When kids get cuts and bruises, most Indian moms put turmeric on them because it functions as an antiseptic,” Mashru says. “Turmeric is mixed with water and applied to the skin of Indian women on their wedding days. The turmeric is believed to have healing and purifying qualities, plus it gives a beautiful sheen to the skin.”

Cumin is another herb with homeopathic qualities. In powder form, it’s a staple of many ethnic cuisines. In India, cumin seeds are used to make kadha, a traditional tea believed to fight the flu and relieve colds. Mashru makes the tea by combining the seeds with ginger, basil leaves and honey in boiling water. She lets the ingredients steep, then strains the water. The tea has a bitter flavor, yet it soothes nausea so effectively that many pregnant Indian women drink it to cope with morning sickness.

Also in Mashru’s homeopathic arsenal: ginger tea, which is believed to relieve bloating, gas and nausea, and help with symptoms of premenstrual syndrome. And a University of Miami study of ginger’s anti-inflammatory properties showed that highly concentrated ginger extract reduced pain and stiffness in knee joints among patients with osteoarthritis. The study’s authors did note that those effects might not come from casual use.

Mashru says the seeds from fenugreek help with menstrual disorders, digestive problems and diabetes. In a clinical trial of Type 2 diabetics at Isfahan University of Medical Sciences in Iran, blood-sugar levels decreased significantly in patients who ingested 10 grams of fenugreek seeds daily. The seeds in the study were soaked in hot water for hours, then drunk. “Many Indians let them soak overnight, then drink the water first thing in the morning,” says Mashru. She also grinds the seeds and adds them yogurt, then lets the mixture sit overnight. In the morning, she puts the yogurt in her hair and keeps it there for an hour, then rinses. “It adds so much shine and strength to my hair,” she says. “It’s an all-natural, super-duper conditioner.”

Yogurt is a critical component of Indian cuisine and homeopathy. “Most Indians—including me—make their own yogurt,” Mashru says. “Start with a yogurt container, add warm milk and a culture, then let it sit. We eat it in the same 24 hours it’s made. The probiotic content in it is very fresh.”The Indian way is to eat plain yogurt with a meal, like a condiment. It balances the spice of other dishes, and its extra-fresh probiotics are believed to maintain digestive health.

Tentative support for probiotics can be found in a 2012 study conducted by the RAND Corporation, where researchers discovered that they could counteract the digestive upset that results from antibiotic therapies. “More work is needed to determine which types of probiotics work best, which patients are most likely to benefit from probiotics, and whether there are any risks in using them,” wrote Sydne J. Newberry, a nutritional scientist and researcher at RAND.

Lentils are the main protein source of almost every Indian meal. Though Indian restaurants in America often feature lamb, chicken and beef, most of the people who live in India are vegetarians—and they have a distinct way of preparing lentils. They soak them “to the point that they sprout,” Mashru says. “It increases the protein and fiber content.”Mashru has a lot more Indian-inspired remedies—fennel seeds for lowering blood pressure and freshening breath, red chili powder for relieving pain and reducing blood sugar. The list goes on and on, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. “Just keep it simple by doing one thing,” she says. “Eat more Indian food.”