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10 Ways to Celebrate the Healing Power of Spices

Looking for a soup to warm you, body and soul? Then look no further than this Curried Cauliflower Soup, which serves as a great introduction to the healing power of spices.

After a week of frigid weather in North Carolina, we’re definitely craving hot soup for dinner. Although the cherry trees in our neighborhood were already starting to bloom, as they were apparently confused by a few weeks of 65 to 70 degrees!

To many readers, nothing says “hot” quite like “curry,” but if you don’t enjoy heavily spiced foods—because, like me, you avoid cayenne pepper—you may be pleasantly surprised how much you’ll love this cauliflower soup. Why? Because this recipe has built-in flexibility from delicately flavored to spicy hot. Although “curry” usually signals fiery hot, when I cook, I leave the cayenne out altogetherbut you can certainly add as much as you enjoy. A curry is simply any Indian-spiced dish with a mélange of spices that are cooked in water and fat to create a gravy, or in this case, a soup.

If you do eat a lot of cayenne and chilies, be advised that they cause all kinds of havoc when eaten in excess. From an Ayurvedic perspective, they increase both vata and pitta problems:

  • Acid reflux? Check.
  • Heartburn? Check.
  • IBS? Check.
  • Irritability? Check.
  • Skin problems? Check.
  • Sleep disorder? Check.
  • Depression and anxiety? Check.

As I’ve written before, the use of chilies and cayenne pepper was never part of traditional Ayurvedic cuisine, as chilies were only introduced to India by the Portuguese navigators in the 16th century. However, the use of various healing spices has been the hallmark of Ayurvedic cooking for five thousand years or more. You’ll see these wonderful, subtle flavors in today’s recipe.

NOTE: Spices 1 through 4 are pictured above in the top row, left to right.

1. Star Anise aids digestion and is good for the respiratory system. If it’s not available, you can substitute with ½ teaspoon ground fennel seed. I often use star anise instead of fennel because it’s pretty as well as flavorful! If you’re not familiar with star anise or fennel, they both have a flavor similar to licorice. If you dislike that taste, feel free to leave it out, though this recipe only creates a hint of this spice’s flavor.

2. Cumin promotes digestion by increasing agni, the body’s digestive fire. Cumin’s taste is slightly pungent and bitter, and its effect is mildly cooling without increasing vata or kapha. Cumin digests toxins, lowers vata, alleviates intestinal spasms and vomiting, benefits intelligence, and clears the head of mucus and congestion. Eaten in excess, cumin will increase pitta because of its pungent quality.

3. Turmeric kindles agni and is studied in Western science for its antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties. It has recently been proven to play a preventative role in colon cancer. Turmeric purifies the blood, stops itching and supports healing of skin diseases. Is also used in Ayurveda to destroy ama (toxins), worms, and fever. It is useful in treating diabetes, gallstones, and liver problems. This is the short list! Whole books have been written about the healing properties of turmeric. Nonetheless, one can take too much turmeric, which will increase pitta (as turmeric is heating) and will increase vata (as turmeric is drying). Vaidya R.K. Mishra suggests too much turmeric can even cause a “detox crisis,” if the body is not properly prepared in advance for detoxification. Ayurveda recommends cooking only with the dried, powdered form of turmeric, mixed with water and fat. Adding dried or raw turmeric to salads or as an uncooked topping to cooked dishes is considered an inappropriate use of turmeric, according to some respected Ayurvedic practitioners, as is eating raw turmeric root.

4. Coriander kindles agni without increasing pitta, because it is cooling. It’s the perfect balance to the heating spices in any dish while also promoting good digestion. It also helps digest toxins, alleviates thirst, and lifts the spirits!

NOTE: Spices 5 through 9 are pictured above in the top row, left to right.

5. Curry powders are as varied as there are spice manufacturers and Indian households. They contain several and up to twenty spices, including ground cayenne and turmeric, which give curries their golden color. All commercial curry powders range from hot to hotter, which means a little goes a long way. Curry powder tends to be excellent for kapha types and kapha problems, such as congestion. In excess curry will aggravate vata and pitta problems. Cayenne makes me itch—a pitta problem, for sure!

6. Asafetida (hing) is heating and an excellent spice for calming vata and kapha, but it should only be used in near miniscule amounts, or it becomes toxic to the body as well as increasing pitta. It helps clear vata in the digestive tract, treating bloating, flatulence, and intestinal pain, so recipes using hard legumes often call for asafetida. It is used in Ayurvedic medicine to clear ama and is used to treat cough and asthma as well as for high vata conditions such as paralysis, sciatica, and epilepsy. If you are gluten-intolerant, you will need to read the label. Most asafetida (also spelled asafoetida) sold in Asian grocery stores is cut with gluten. The Savory Spice chain sells gluten-free asafetida.

7. Black mustard seeds are pungent and bitter with a heating effect. They stimulate agni, warm the digestive system, and clear sluggish congestion. They are also used in Ayurvedic medicines to treat lung problems, arthritis, and to clear ama.

8. Cardamom, shown here as cardamom pods, is both pungent and sweet with a cooling effect. Cardamom is good for all doshas though in excess will increase pitta because of its pungent quality. Cardamom is excellent for stimulating digestion and treating flatulence, colic, and intestinal pain. I used the pods in this recipe to give a hint of flavor. Most people would not enjoy biting into a whole pod! If you wish, you can open the pod and crush the seeds for a more intense flavor.

9. Curry leaves have a wonderful aromatic flavor to add to soups, stews, and Indian curries. They are sweet, astringent, and pungent, and according to Dr. Vasant Lad, they are fine for all doshas. They are used medicinally in Ayurveda to support digestion and lower blood sugar.

10. Black pepper was also added to this recipe, not only to make it an even 10! Black pepper makes a curry taste more like curry if you’re not using cayenne, and it helps digest the cauliflower. Black pepper is a heating spice that pacifies vata and kapha, and when used in moderation, will not be overp0wering for pitta. Even so, people with pitta problems benefit from avoiding pepper during the warm summer months. Black pepper stimulates agni and helps increase enzyme secretion for the digestive process. It is used medicinally in Ayurvedic treatments for sluggish digestion, abdominal pain, anorexia, lung conditions, and to help remove worms.

Enjoy using some or all of these ancient spices in this timeless Curried Cauliflower Soup!

Notes:  Pole Sebastian. Ayurvedic Medicine, The Principles of Traditional Practice. (Philadelphia. PA: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier, 2006). Cardamom 151; coriander 164-65; cumin 167; hing 197; mustard seeds 230; black pepper 237; turmeric 282.




Serves 3 to 4
Preparation time: About 45 minutes

This soup can be delicately flavored or spicy hot, to your liking! All of the spices support digestion but use what you have available. I suggest cumin, coriander, and turmeric along with salt and pepper, at a minimum, to get the equivalent of a curry-style flavor. If you don’t have fresh stock available, use a total of 6 cups of water.

2 tablespoons ghee or coconut oil, divided
1 leek bulb and ½ inch of the light-green shank
1 cup dry red lentils
4 cups Easy Vegetable Soup Stock
2 cups water
1 large head cauliflower
3 to 4 full-sized red kale leaves
2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger
2 to 3 star anise or ½ teaspoon ground fennel powder
10 whole cardamom pods
1 pinch asafetida (optional)
½ to 1 teaspoon curry powder (optional)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon turmeric, if using stock and/or curry powder;
otherwise 1 teaspoon turmeric
3 to 5 fresh curry leaves (optional)
1½ teaspoons salt, or to taste
Black pepper, to taste

Shopping Tip: You can sometimes find curry leaves at Whole Foods, and they are usually available at Asian food stores.

1. Clean and slice the leek. Heat the ghee or oil in a 4-quart or larger soup pot. Add the sliced leek and sauté for about 5 minutes until it’s uniformly golden and starting to brown. While the leek is cooking, rinse and strain the lentils. Add the lentils to the pot and stir. Add the stock and water, and bring the pot to a boil. Then lower the heat to medium, cover the pot and cook the lentils for 15 minutes.

2. While the lentils are cooking, prepare the cauliflower by cutting off the florets into bite-sized pieces. Rinse the kale and chop it into small pieces. After the lentils have cooked 15 minutes, add the cauliflower to the pot, stir and cover for 10 minutes.

3. While the soup is cooking, prepare the ginger and pull the spices out of the cupboard. After 10 minutes, use a handheld immersible blender for about a minute to purée half of the cauliflower. Add the kale, cardamom pods and star anise, and recover the pot, turning the heat down to medium low to keep the soup simmering enough to cook the kale for 5 to 10 minutes. (If using ground fennel powder instead of star anise, save fennel until step 4.)

4. Create the tarka (spice mixture cooked in fat): While the kale is getting tender, heat a small saucepan on medium heat Add ghee or oil to the pan. When the fat is hot but not smoking add the mustard seeds and cover the pot, until the seeds start to pop. Remove the pan from the burner or turn off the gas. Add the asafetida, curry powder, cumin, coriander, turmeric, and curry leaves. (Cover when you add the leaves if recently rinsed, so they don’t splatter oil in your face.) Add the tarka to the soup pot along with the fresh ginger, salt, and pepper, and stir to mix well. This soup will taste best if you can let it sit on warm for another 10 minutes or more to let the seasonings have time to permeate the soup, but you can serve immediately, if you prefer.



Try with 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon curry powder.

Best to avoid curry powder!

Enjoy curry powder!

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