Herbs have had an important role in the development of cultures around the world since the dawn of history. Not only were they used for cooking but also for healing. Early healers from cultures as varied as the ancient Chinese and the ancient Celts understood the power of herbs and how they could heal wounds and cure common ailments.

However, it has been in cooking where the use of herbs thrived. Mediterranean cultures like the Greeks and Italians have used a number of herbs in their foods that have become the hallmark of these cuisines. Many Greek dishes are known for their use of nutmeg and rosemary while basil, garlic, and oregano are common in Italian cooking. Middle Eastern foods, various Asian dishes, and Mexican meals (which are a blend of Spanish and Native American flavors) all have their own herbal profiles. You can tell what kind of restaurant is in a neighborhood just by the smells emanating from the building.

The benefits of herbs are not limited to the boundaries between medicine and food. Ingesting these ingredients as part of a gourmet meal can provide positive nutrients for maintaining a healthy lifestyle. This is why many healthy eating blogs are also focused on creating rich and flavorful foods. The right herb combinations can eliminate the need for high fat or sugar content making these dishes as delicious as any decadent desserts.

Cooking with herbs

While using supplements can help add these nutritional herbs to your daily allowance and can be the most efficient way to acquire them, they certainly aren’t the most fun or delicious. Cooking with herbs while paying attention to their specific nutritional value can be a great way to learn a new skill and provide amazing meals for yourself and your family. Here is a look at some of the herbs that can add flavor and health benefits to your meals.

Turmeric

Most commonly found in Indian cuisine, turmeric is extremely healthy. Studies have shown that it has anti-inflammatory properties and is good for individuals with arthritis. In fact, some research has indicated that it may be more effective at helping with arthritis pain than some prescription medications.

Turmeric is used in many curries along with other Indian spices. It is most commonly found in a powder form and is available at Indian markets and in some grocery stores. The spice will add a rich yellow color to your cooking. Use it to make a tikka masala sauce that you can add to vegetables, chicken, seafood, or rice.

Cinnamon

One of the more popular spices around the winter holidays, cinnamon is more than just a fragrant additive to foods. It has been shown to lower blood sugar levels which, in turn, can help diabetic patients better control their condition. It has also been known to reduce cholesterol levels which can reduce the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.

Like turmeric, cinnamon can be taken as an extract but you may want to consider adding it to your regular menu. Most people think of sweet foods when they consider cinnamon but Middle Eastern cultures, like Lebanese and Syrian, frequently use cinnamon in savory dishes which give them a distinctive and delicious flavor. Just avoid mixing cinnamon with foods that are high in fat and sugar contents to achieve the best results.

Rosemary

This pungent evergreen herb is great with grilled meats or hearty stews. As it turns out, there is a reason for this pairing. Rosemary helps the body avoid the negative effects of carcinogens called Heterocyclic Amines or HCAs, like those that are common on steaks cooked over an open fire or at any high temperature. The antioxidants in rosemary appear to target the HCAs and prevent the development of tumors.

The good news is that rosemary and meat is a delicious combination. Use bundled sprigs to add flavor to a stew or soup. It is also great in conjunction with other herbs such as thyme, oregano, garlic, or basil. Like those herbs, rosemary is easy to grow as well. While you can use a supplement or a powder, fresh or dried rosemary is always a better choice.

Ginger

Though technically a root and not an herb at all, ginger is a great treatment for nausea caused by a number of conditions. This includes pregnancy, motion sickness, or even nausea related to chemotherapy. Ginger blocks the effects of serotonin that your body creates when it is nauseated which, in turn, stops the stomach from feeling upset.

Common in many Chinese meals, ginger is great for soups, stir fries, or as a dressing on a salad. Like cinnamon it can also be used in sweet preparations, such as gingerbread. Combine ginger and cinnamon for flavored teas like chai, which can provide you with not only the benefits of those individual herbs but also from the black tea itself.

Basil

As it turns out, a specific version of the common basil plant, once known as “holy basil,” is great at helping reduce stress. Ingesting this herb increases adrenaline in a healthy way and decreases the body’s production of serotonin.

Basil is extremely common in Italian dishes including pesto sauces. Replacing common basil with holy basil can give you the added stress-relieving health benefits you may need. Use it in place of raw basil as the base of a Caprese salad with fresh mozzarella and tomatoes drizzled with a little balsamic vinegar.

Garlic

Finally, very few home cooks can go for long without adding garlic to their cooking. It is used by almost all cultures, from Chinese to Italian, and is one of the most versatile ingredients you can use. As it turns it, it is also one of the healthiest. The benefits of garlic are many. It can lower the risk of developing cancer, help with a common cold, and decrease the risk of high blood pressure. It even has antibiotic properties.

Fortunately, garlic is also one of the easiest things to cook with. Keep whole cloves on hand to roast and spread on hearty, crusty bread in place of butter. Add minced garlic to pasta sauces, soups, or stir frys. Garlic is the kind of herb that you can add to just about anything in order to create a delicious dish that everyone in the house can enjoy.

What other herbs for healing have you cooked with? Can you share some favorite family recipes?

Image by Brian Ambrozy via Flickr

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