Spices have been used for centuries around the globe for culinary purposes and their impressive therapeutic benefits. Spices not only enhance the flavour and aroma of meals they deliver important antioxidants and health-promoting phytonutrients. Consuming invigorating spices like mustard, peppercorns, wasabi, chili peppers, and horseradish, regularly will liven up your diet and help promote optimal health and protection against certain diseases.
Mustard seeds have a long history of use in Ayurvedic tradition as a food, and as a medicine to help purge toxins from the body.
There are three main types of mustard seeds that are popular for culinary use – white, black and brown. The seeds can be used as dried whole seeds, ground, or made into a paste (the condiment mustard). White mustard seeds have a milder taste and are often called yellow mustard as they’re used to make the condiment American yellow mustard. Black mustard seeds have a stronger aroma and flavour and are commonly used in Indian cuisine. Brown mustard, which is also called Chinese or Indian mustard, has a sharper more pungent taste, and is used to make Dijon mustard.
Mustard is a brassica vegetable related to cabbage, cauliflower and kale. Brassica vegetables naturally contain high levels of sulfur-containing phytonutrients called isothiocyanates that have cancer preventative properties. (1) Mustard, horseradish and wasabi are particularly abundant in this anti-cancerous compound. Isothiocyanates are responsible for the pungent flavour of these vegetables. To activate the isothiocyanates you need to either chop, grate or crush the mustard seeds.
Mustard seeds are also high in certain important minerals including calcium, phosphorus, potassium and magnesium, along with beneficial omega-3 essential fatty acids.
Mustard seeds were traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat colds, bronchitis and sinus-related issues. Mustard seeds are an effective decongestant and expectorant that assists with clearing mucous from the respiratory tract. They also have anti-inflammatory properties.
This warming Ayurvedic spice is used to increase digestive fire and improve digestive issues such as excess wind and bloating. Mustard is also a thermogenic food that boosts metabolism.
Mustard seeds give plenty of flavour to savoury dishes like dips, sandwiches, salad dressings, pickled vegetables. They also pair well with meats and cheeses.
Pepper is a kitchen staple and one of the most widely used spices around the world. Peppercorns are tiny fruits that grow on vines, traditionally from India and Vietnam. There are three varieties of peppercorns available in stores – black, white and green, which all come from the same plant. Black peppercorns are left to mature on the vine so they have a strong spicy flavour with subtle heat. White peppercorns are made from soaked black peppercorns, which results in a hotter and more pungent flavour. Green peppercorns are harvested when they’re young so they have a milder flavour.
This pungent and healing spice is used in Ayurvedic medicine for its cleansing and antioxidant properties. Black pepper helps stimulate digestion and appetite, and can help improve digestive issues like bloating and excess wind by increasing digestive acids. Black pepper also has an expectorant action making it useful for alleviating blocked noses, sinusitis and other respiratory conditions. Pepper can boost circulation and has an anti-inflammatory action making it beneficial for easing joint pain.
Peperine is the active compound found in peppercorns that gives pepper its distinctive pungent taste. Peperine is a potent antioxidant that has been found to help neutralize damaging free radicals throughout the body. It can help reduce inflammation and cholesterol, and is beneficial for improving blood sugar levels. Peperine can also help boost serotonin levels and the release of endorphins, which is useful for enhancing mood and alleviating anxiety.
Black pepper is often added to dietary supplements as it helps improve the absorption of certain nutrients including selenium, beta-carotene, vitamin A and C, and curcumin found in turmeric.
Peppercorns are available in whole, cracked, ground, or mixed peppercorns. This versatile spice can enhance the flavour or most savoury dishes including vegetables, pasta, stir-fries, poultry, meat, tofu, fish and rice dishes. Pepper pairs well with cumin, garlic, cardamom, lemon zest and turmeric.
Sichuan pepper, which is the essential ingredient in the popular Chinese Five Spice blend, is not actually a true peppercorn. Sichuan pepper comes from the berries of the prickly ash tree native to Sichuan province in Southwest China. Its pink outer husk has an anise aroma and a sweet citrus flavour.
True wasabi, also known as Japanese horseradish, is a root cultivated in Japan that looks very similar to ginger. Wasabi can be purchased as a root, or made into a powder or paste. Wasabi paste is a condiment that is commonly served with traditional Japanese meals, including raw fish and sushi. This Asian superfood has an extremely strong and pungent flavour, which is accompanied by a burning sensation. Wasabi produces vapours that stimulate and clear the nasal passages.
Wasabi belongs to the brassica family and is related to horseradish, mustard and cabbage. Like other brassica vegetables wasabi also contains high levels of isothiocyanates, that are activated when the root is grated or ground into a paste. Isothiocyanates also have anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial and anti-cancerous properties.
Wasabi has natural antibiotic properties. It can help kill foodborne bacteria due to its antimicrobial action, making it potentially useful for preventing food poisoning. (2) This is one of the reasons why Japanese use wasabi served with raw fish.
You need to be careful that you are buying real or true wasabi. Wasabi is extremely difficult to grow and only has a short shelf life. Its pungent flavour only lasts around 15 minutes. A lot of restaurants use fake wasabi made from horseradish, mustard and green food colouring.
To get the best flavour from your wasabi, scrub the root and use a super fine grater, then crush it with a spoon. Let the wasabi sit for 5 minutes and then serve.
To make a delicious wasabi salad dressing mix ¼ cup apple cider vinegar, 2 Tbsp honey, 1 Tbsp tamari, 2-3 tsp wasabi, 2 Tbsp sesame or olive oi, juice of a lime, and 1 tsp minced ginger. Try mixing some wasabi paste through organic grass-fed butter to use on oven baked bread or vegetables, pasta sauce, avocado dip, hummus, spread on pizza crusts, baked salmon, smashed potatoes or mash, noodle dishes, grilled corn or veggies, or in healthy coleslaw dressings.
Chili peppers are the fruits of capsicum plants, which originated in central and South America. Chili peppers play an integral role in Mexican and Asian cuisines, adding heat and spiciness to a variety of dishes. Chili can be used fresh, dried, pickled, roasted or ground into a powder.
Chili contains an active compound called capsaicin that gives chili its intense pungency and heat, along with its many health benefits. The chili plant produces capsaicin as a defence mechanism against predators. The amount of capsaicin varies among the different varieties of chili. The smallest chili peppers are generally the hottest. Chili peppers range from sweet bell peppers (with no heat); Jalapeno, serrano and chipotle (medium heat); cayenne and Thai (very hot); and Jamaican hot, Chocolate Habanero and Ghost peppers (extremely hot). Carolina Reaper peppers are in the Guinness book of world records as the hottest chili pepper on the planet. Paprika is a fine powder commonly used in Hungarian cooking, that is made from a variety of sweet and mild chili peppers.
Chili is beneficial for boosting cardiovascular health as it stimulates circulation, and helps reduce blood clotting and cholesterol levels.
Chili peppers are a great source of vitamin C and A, which are two important nutrients needed for a strong functioning immune system, healthy skin and eyesight, and to help reduce inflammation in the body. Chili peppers are also an excellent source of protective antioxidants.
Consuming chili will help stimulate the salivary glands and digestive juices to aid the digestive process and improve excess wind and bloating.
Chili is also a thermogenic spice that will give your metabolism a boost. A study published in the Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand (2003) found that after consuming capsaicin in chilli, metabolic rates immediately increased by 20% and were sustained for 30 minutes.
Eating chili is useful for fighting off colds and flu due to its immune boosting action. Chili also helps fight off respiratory infections by clearing nasal congestion and increasing sweating.
When preparing chili it is important to wear rubber gloves and make sure you don’t touch your eyes. Remove the seeds and the inner membranes if you want to reduce the heat. Consuming dairy products, like yoghurt or sour cream, will reduce the heat of the capsaicin. Indian foods are commonly served with a yogurt based raita, and spicy Mexican meals are often eaten with sour cream for this reason.
Try this delicious cleansing chili tonic that will give your metabolism and digestion a boost. In a teapot add hot water, 2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar, the juice of ½ lemon, a slice fresh ginger, 1 tsp raw honey and a pinch of cayenne powder. Let your tonic brew for 5 minutes then enjoy!
Add chili to pasta dishes, nachos, Thai and Indian curries, lentil dahls, dips, salad dressings, soups, and fish, meat and chicken dishes. Chili also pairs well with dark chocolate, so try adding a pinch to your next hot cocoa.
Horseradish is a kitchen staple in Russian and Hungarian homes. This pungent root vegetable, traditionally grown throughout Southern Europe, is a member of the brassica family along with wasabi and mustard. Like other brassica vegetables horseradish contains high levels of isothiocyanates. This valuable phytonutrient is responsible for its pungent taste and anti-cancerous and anti-inflammatory properties. It contains ten times more isothiocyanates than broccoli, so even small servings will deliver a good dose of this beneficial compound.
Horseradish is used as a traditional medicine to treat respiratory conditions such as bronchitis, sinusitis, coughs and common colds. Horseradish is a ‘cholagogue’ which means that it can stimulate the production of bile in the gallbladder to help aid digestion.
The pungent smell of horseradish is a useful decongestant. It can help relieve congestion and reduce mucous production associated with hay fever. It also has natural antibiotic properties that can fight infections, including urinary tract infections.
Horseradish is packed with antioxidants and other essential nutrients including vitamin C and folate.
Horseradish is commonly consumed as a condiment served with meats and fish. Prepared horseradish root is usually grated and picked with vinegar and salt. Vinegar helps reduce the pungency. Horseradish sauce commonly has cream, sour cream or mayonnaise added for a creamier sauce.
You can consume horseradish raw, cooked or pickled. Try adding some freshly grated horseradish to mashed potato, cream cheese, beef stews, roast meats, potato salads or coleslaw, hummus or guacamole, sandwiches, salad dressings, aioli, green beans or beetroot.
1. Arup Bhattacharya, et al. Allyl isothiocyanate-rich mustard seed powder inhibits bladder cancer growth and muscle invasion. Carcinogenesis. 2010 Dec; 31(12): 2105–2110.
2. Zhongjing Lu et al. Antibacterial Activities of Wasabi against Escherichia coli O157:H7 and Staphylococcus aureus. Front Microbiol. 2016;7:1403.