Ayurvedic spices offer more than flavor and coloring to otherwise bland cuisine. Spices are not only tasty, aromatic, and wonderfully colorful, they are also packed full of nutrients and helpful phytochemicals. Ayurvedic spices can be chosen to benefit your health and to balance your doshas! This post will discuss some of the most common Ayurvedic spices, their benefits, and energetics.
An Ayurveda colleague of mine once shared a meme, “I’ve got 99 problems, but turmeric solved like 86 of them.” Of course it gave me a chuckle. But comedy aside, this statement points to turmeric’s broad and vast usages. Turmeric has a bitter, pungent, and astringent rasa (initial taste), a warm energy (virya), and an overall purifying effect on the body (1).
Furthermore, turmeric is a potent anti-inflammatory, rich in antioxidants and even stimulates the body’s own antioxidant production. Turmeric also supports healthy brain function (2). In addition, turmeric shows much promise in the the anti-cancer realm—for its ability to both inhibit cancer cell growth and to prevent spread. In fact, more than ten thousand studies have demonstrated turmeric’s cancer-fighting capacity (2).
The versatility of turmeric is mirrored in its culinary usages. You can supplement with turmeric, and/or consider adding this lovely yellow-orange Ayurvedic spice to curries and stir-fried or roasted veggies. Or make a cup of turmeric-ginger tea—even add the root fresh grated or powdered to your chai! Due to its warm nature, turmeric pacifies Vata and Kapha doshas, but can aggravate Pitta when taken in large amounts.
This sweet and spicy favorite is as beneficial as it is tasty. Cinnamon (both Cinnamomum zeylanicum and Cinnamomum aromaticum) is another rich source of antioxidants and has anti-inflammatory properties (2). Another notable feature of cinnamon is that it helps regulate blood sugar levels. This may prove useful in cases of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) as blood sugar imbalances and insulin resistance may play a role in PCOS (2).
In terms of flavor profile, cinnamon is sweet, pungent, and astringent. It has a warm energy and an overall purifying effect (1). Cinnamon’s sweet, warm qualities make it especially beneficial for Vata dosha. It is also one of the ingredients in the classical Ayurvedic breakfast jam Chyawanprash. Plus, cinnamon stimulates agni and promotes circulation. Consider adding cinnamon to baked goods, teas, and even a dash of ground powder to savory stir fries or roasted vegetables.
Another blood moving favorite, ginger has a pungent and sweet taste, a warm energy, and is nourishing when fresh and purifying when dried (1). Like other warming spices, it is pacifying for Vata and Kapha, but increases Pitta (1). However, Pitta types can enjoy small amounts of fresh ginger as long as there is no acute Pitta aggravation.
Ginger benefits digestion by working as a carminative. It stimulates agni and is proving useful in instances of nausea. It is also anti-inflammatory and helps food move at a more efficient pace through the digestive tract. This is helpful in cases of constipation, nausea, low appetite, and even heartburn (2).
Dried ginger will warm the belly and the blood from the inside out. Fresh ginger has a diaphoretic (sweat promoting) action, making it especially supportive for colds and flu. Plain fresh ginger tea is a great go-to when you feel a cold setting in. Or sip on this simple warming beverage during cool winter nights. Ginger goes well in sweet and savory dishes alike. Like cinnamon, it is also one of the ingredients in Chyawanprash. Fresh-grated ginger makes a wonderful stand-alone tea or can be combined with other Ayurvedic spices such as turmeric, cinnamon, or black pepper for a spicy, warming herbal infusion.
At last a Pitta friendly spice! Coriander has a bitter and pungent taste, a cool energy, and a purifying post-digestive effect (1). Coriander is especially balancing for Pitta dosha, both in seed and leaf (cilantro) form. Coriander is a key ingredient in the well-known Ayurvedic CCF tea. It kindles the agni without overheating Pitta dosha, making it the perfect Ayurvedic spice for hot weather and for those who run warm.
This cooling, pleasant tasting spice is especially supportive for the digestive and urinary tract (1). It blends well in a variety of cuisines—Indian, European, Asian, Latin, and Middle Eastern. Like cinnamon, coriander may have the effect of normalizing blood sugar (2). Also, cilantro juice, taken internally or applied externally, has been used to soothe skin outbreaks such as hives and rashes (1). And, coriander essential oil has demonstrated antimicrobial effects when applied externally (2).
Allspice is another wonderfully versatile spice that complements sweet and savory dishes alike. This tasty berry has a pungent initial taste, a warm energy, and an overall purifying effect (3). It also find it’s flavor to resemble cinnamon and nutmeg, which is probably why it works with sweet foods as well as savory.
In South America allspice has traditionally been used to regulate menses as well as to calm indigestion. Scientific studies support its usage in balancing out menopausal symptoms (2). Allspice is also rich in antioxidants, has exhibited anti-cancer effects with prostate cancer, and may regulate blood pressure (2). This is indeed a versatile spice; add it to roasted veggies, legumes, soups, stews, or even porridges and baked goods.
One of my all time favorites, no cup of chai would be complete without cardamom. And certainly no Ayurvedic spice list as well! Cardamom has a sweet and pungent taste, a warm energy, and a purifying post-digestive effect (1). This fragrant little seed pod is probably so well-liked due to its pleasing aroma. Just a pinch dusted over a cup of tea or a fresh-baked cookie adds a comforting and refreshing scent. Not to mention the flavor!
Furthermore, cardamom is considered to be a sattvic Ayurvedic spice. It clears and refreshes the mind, as well as stimulates digestion. Cardamon may also be helpful in regulating circulation and in balancing matters of the heart—both physical and metaphysical. Chew a few cardamom pods as a breath freshener (1). Or, include it in you chai, oatmeal, and baked goods. Plus, a dash of cardamom on your ice cream may help counter the cold, heavy qualities of dairy and sweets!
If ever there was a spice to warm it up and stimulate the agni, black pepper is such a spice! Black pepper is pungent all the way around—it has a pungent initial taste, a heating energy, and a pungent (purifying) post-digestive effect. In fact, another name for black pepper is “Maricha,” or “that which destroys impurities.” This is also another name for the Sun in Sanskrit (1). The name Maricha points to black pepper’s heating and purifying effects.
Black pepper is wonderful for stimulating a sluggish digestive fire. Though pungent, it is suitable for Vata dosha if taken in moderation, and can help regulate Vata’s somewhat variable digestive fire. Black pepper’s hot, dry qualities make it a good choice for Kapha dosha.
Black pepper brings warmth to a cool dishes such as salad, and is very useful for people who favor foods with a cool energy. Add fresh ground pepper to salads, pastas, or any dish that could benefit from a bit of peppery warmth. Pitta types should use caution with black pepper, and Vata types should be aware of its drying qualities, though as mention earlier, a bit of black pepper can benefit their digestion.
Let’s close out our list of Ayurvedic spices with another Pitta friendly selection. Since the warming spices tend to be off limits for Pitta types, it’s helpful to be aware of some cooling options. Fennel is one such spice. This fragrant seed has a pungent and sweet initial taste, a slightly cool energy, and a nourishing post-digestive effect (1).
Fennel’s flavor slightly resembles licorice, so if you are adverse to the taste of licorice, you may want to proceed slowly with fennel. Fennel is tridoshic, though its sweet taste makes it particularly good for Vata and Pitta (1). It is very helpful for regulating the flow of apana vayu (the down and out energy), and is therefore great in cases of excess gas, bloating, and bowel irregularities (1). Fennel seeds are a go-to after meal treat in most Indian restaurants. They are great for freshening the breath and easing digestion.
Also, fennel has demonstrated promise in calming menstrual pain, is rich in antioxidants, and may also have anticancer properties (2). To incorporate this delicious Ayurvedic spice into your diet, try adding a dash of the ground seeds into your morning oatmeal. Or, chew on a few roasted seeds after any meal. Fennel seeds also work well in teas, and fennel bulb is positively delicious when roasted.
Spice it Up!
This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the beneficial Ayurvedic spices out there. However, whether you favor warming or cooling spices, I hope this gives you a sense of how wonderfully supportive your spice selections can be. So, freshen up your spice rack and sprinkle some cardamom, fennel, or black pepper on your favorite dish! Spices add so much more than color and flavor!
(1) Dass, V. (2013). Ayurvedic herbology East & West: A practical guide to Ayurvedic herbal medicine. Twin Lakes, WI: Lotus Press.
(2) Palanisamy, A. (2015). The paleovedic diet: A complete program to burn fat, increase energy, and reverse disease. New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing.
(3) Lad, U., & Lad, V. (1994). Ayurvedic cooking for self-healing. Albuquerque, NM: The Ayurvedic Press.
Greta Kent-Stoll is a Certified Ayurvedic Practitioner (NAMA), as well as a writer, editor, and Certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher. Her Ayurveda practice is based in Asheville, North Carolina and she is the co-owner of Iyengar Yoga Asheville.