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On Nutrition

Spices do more than perk up the flavor of your food — they put a natural pharmacy right in your kitchen. Few people know that better than Christina Arokiasamy, the local author of the cookbook and memoir “The Spice Merchant’s Daughter.”

True to her book’s title, Arokiasamy comes from a long line of spice merchants, but you could say that something in the water during her childhood in Malaysia helped spur her appreciation for the health benefits of spices — literally. “We never just drank water, we drank spiced water,” she said. “We were consuming wealth and health.”

Cooking and eating for health using spices is a way of life for Southeast Asians, she said. “Spices are so important in the foundation of our cuisine. It’s about living a healthy life, living life that is abundant in all that is vital in nature.”

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While many people have a spice rack or drawer, Arokiasamy has two large cabinets in her Kent home packed with the glass jars that contain the fragrant and healthful tools of her trade. She’s working on a second cookbook, this time focusing on using spices for health and well-being.

She’s noticed that Americans tend to be more concerned with a food’s calorie count than its overall healthfulness, something she hopes to help change. “Your food is your first vehicle to health.”

Not only can spices and herbs improve digestion and nutrient absorption, but they are concentrated sources of plant phytonutrients, many of which have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory or even anti-cancer properties. Turmeric and cinnamon, along with fresh garlic and ginger, are noted for their anti-inflammatory benefits and are frequent players in Arokiasamy’s kitchen.

“I’m fascinated by how all the spices work,” she said. “Turmeric has many ways to improve health. It’s the king of spice.” (The queen, she says, is galangal, a wonderfully fragrant member of the ginger family.) A few of the other spices in her culinary arsenal include cardamom, cloves, coriander, cumin, curry powder, mustard seeds, star anise and dried chili peppers.

“Many people think these spices only work with Southeast Asian cuisine,” Arokiasamy said, “but you can take American foods and use spice and make them fabulous.”

It’s a message this former hotel chef has been spreading since moving to the United States 20 years ago. Today, she uses food and spice as a cultural bridge via the cooking classes she teaches in her home and her role as Malaysia’s Food Ambassador to the U.S.

“I really want Americans to experience this. I like to ask, ‘What do you eat and how can I make it better?’ ”

For some Americans, one perceived impediment is a dislike of spicy food. “So many people don’t understand that spices are not spicy, they are delicious,” she said. Indeed, in a recent cooking session with Arokiasamy, the dishes we prepared were richly flavorful and aromatic, but not spicy hot — unless we added chili peppers.

As a working mother, Arokiasamy knows time is in short supply. She says that spices are an easy way to accentuate simply prepared foods, whole foods like fish, meat, chicken, vegetables, whole grains and lentils. Save more time by preparing spice rubs and pastes in advance so they are ready and waiting in the pantry or freezer when it’s time to pull a meal together.

“Spices are such a living thing,” she said. “They are your little friends in the cabinet, saying, ‘Use me, use me.’ ”

Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, CD is a registered dietitian nutritionist at Northwest Natural Health in Ballard. Her blog is nutritionbycarrie.com and her website is carriedennett.com. Reach her at nutritionbycarrie@gmail.com