Why a good curry can be a life saver

The hot news is that the spices used in Indian food can keep you healthy

By Ruth Joseph, November 23, 2010
Ingredients like turmeric, chilli, cinnamon and cloves all have properties which combat serious diseases

Ingredients like turmeric, chilli, cinnamon and cloves all have properties which combat serious diseases

In Britain, curries have traditionally been considered indigestible junk food, to be eaten late at night after a number of lagers. However, aficionados and those who follow traditional Indian ayurvedic medicine have long believed that a good curry can not only maintain good health but even improve it.

A basic curry will contain a myriad of fragrant spices. It will almost certainly contain turmeric - part of the ginger family - which gives the curry its glorious golden colour.

Indians have known for centuries that when used with care - too much will be bitter - turmeric not only enhances the colour and taste of the food but also has therapeutic properties. The reason for this is the compound curcumin, a wonderful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory which works in the same way as over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs - but without the ghastly side effects - and is thus able to reduce pain.

Even more amazingly, research caried out at the MD Anderson Centre in Texas has shown that curcumin can "turn off" the genes that trigger the onset and spread of breast cancer. In other studies, the spice has been found to help stabilise pancreatic cancer. It is also known to slow down the progression of Alzheimer's disease by boosting memory. When patients treated with curcumin were examined, the growth of plaques in the brain had halved and the brain tissue was less inflamed. It also has cholesterol-lowering properties.

Ginger itself - or rather its active ingredient, gingerol - is already used medicinally to ward off sickness and the side effects of chemotherapy and is believed to encourage blood flow and so relieve pain.

Chillies and cayenne contain capsaicin which can alleviate pain associated with diabetic neuropathy. They also contain bacteria which are believed to fight stomach ulcers and can reduce cholesterol while also helping to speed up metabolism which, in turn, assists weight loss.

Garlic famously eases blood flow, thus assisting with heart health, and has antioxidants which reduce cholesterol and help to fight cancer. And it was used as an antiseptic in the First World War to treat wounds.

Mustard seeds and pepper are both warming and wonderful for circulation while cloves have been used for centuries as a natural antiseptic.

Cinnamon has potent powers and is now in the forefront in the fight against the symptoms of type 2 diabetes. Researchers have proved that ingesting an amount of cinnamon every day, whether with cereal or mixed in coffee or tea, can have a valuable effect on blood sugar levels.

Numerous Eastern recipes contain pulses such as lentils or chickpeas or wholegrains that are known to lower cholesterol and improve blood sugar.

And finally, most curries contain numerous fresh herbs such as mint, which is cooling and known to aid digestion, and coriander, which is full of vitamins and minerals and delicious when combined with spices.

So at last we have a wonderful excuse to indulge our passion for spicy food. And why not think about making your own curry - it is not that daunting.

The simplest way is to find a basic recipe and to remember that in most curries the spices are dry-roasted in a frying pan first to release all the natural oils. This gives them their flavours. Sometimes a recipe will ask you to sweat onions and spices in oil - I always reduce the amount to one tablespoon and find that it has no detrimental effect on the flavour.

Begin maybe with a simple dhal which is usually made with lentils - delicious served over plain brown rice for a healthy meatless meal which goes wonderfully with fresh vegetables such as spinach or cauliflower.

Easy lentil Dhal

This dhal dish does not contain the traditional tarka spices which are usually added at the end. Nevertheless, it is a flavoursome introduction to curries.

Serves 4 with rice.

● 1 dessertspoon olive oil
● 125g, 4oz approx finely chopped onions
● 1 clove garlic finely chopped
● 225g, 8oz red lentils
● 900ml, 1.58 pints vegetable stock
● 1 tablespoon garam masala
● 1 stick cinnamon bark
● 4 fresh tomatoes chopped
● 1 teasp salt
● 1 tablespoon finely chopped coriander (optional)

● Cook the lentils in the microwave for ½ hour in the stock. Sweat onions and garlic with garam masala and cinnamon bark.
● When golden sweet, add cooked red lentils. Stir well.
● Add salt to taste, then, just before serving, the coriander and the tomatoes.

Last updated: 3:52pm, November 23 2010