Warm Spices 101

Did you know that many Eastern cultures categorize spices and herbs into warm and cool? This article examines why.

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Many Eastern cultures categorize spices and herbs into warm and cool. In Chinese medicine, they are referred to as yin (cool) and yang (warm) foods. Warming herbs tend to be sweet but pungent, whereas cooling spices usually taste sour and bitter. Examples of cooling foods are thyme, mint and cilantro. Warming foods include turmeric, cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg and ginger. 

THE AYURVEDA SYSTEM

Ayurveda is a centuries-old Hindu system of nutrition and medicine that was developed alongside yoga as a way to prevent illness and imbalance. The Ayurvedic diet promotes personalized suggestions about which foods to eat and avoid based on one's body type. According to the Ayurvedic system, our metabolism needs to work harder in winter to digest properly and warming foods and spices are necessary to stay healthy. While the Ayurveda system is considered pseudoscience by many, it is widely practiced in India and beyond. In the Western world, it is largely viewed as alternative medicine.

TURMERIC

Turmeric comes from a tall plant that grows in Asia and Central America. Arguably one of the world’s healthiest ingredients, this powerful spice is known for its anti-inflammatory and healing properties. A staple in Indian and South Asian cuisine, the slightly warm and peppery flavor of turmeric makes it a wonderful addition to savory dishes. In Indian cooking, it is commonly heated in a fat, like oil, which can increase absorption. In South Asia, you’ll find it used in a hot drink called “golden milk,” a beloved elixir there. As an added bonus, it gives a nice golden colour to your food. Try throwing a few dashes of it onto roasted vegetables, soups, and even popcorn! Be aware that turmeric temporarily stains the hands, similar to how beets do. 

Warming spices tend to be sweet but pungent, whereas cooling spices usually taste sour and bitter.

CINNAMON

Cinnamon is one of most well-known warming spices. Its distinctive aroma and spicy and sweet flavor profile match well with savory dishes like stews, roasted lamb and pork. It is also a wonderful addition to soups and, of course, baked goods, from apple crisp to muffins. A particularly useful spice, cinnamon also fends off pesky insects and makes a great spray air freshener, when mixed with water.

NUTMEG

Nutmeg is a versatile spice that works equally well in sweet and savory dishes. Derived from a shelled, dried seed, its nutty, warm flavour makes it indispensable to eggnog, pies, cookies and custards. It is also used in savory cooking and pairs particularly well with egg and cheese dishes. You’re very likely to find this spice in French pantries, as it is commonly included in baked goods, soups and sauce recipes like béchamel. When in France, look for ‘Noix de muscade,’ the French name for nutmeg. Like many ground spices, the flavor of ground nutmeg will deteriorate quickly, whereas whole pieces will keep indefinitely and can be grated as needed with a microplane zester. Keep in mind that one whole nutmeg, grated, equals about two teaspoons of ground nutmeg. A common substitution for nutmeg is mace, as it comes from the same plant and has a similar, but harsher flavor. Nutmeg is the inner seed, while mace is the red, lacey bit that surrounds the seed. Used in small amounts, nutmeg can reduce gas, aid digestion, and improve the appetite. 

Nutmeg is a versatile spice that works equally well in sweet and savory dishes.

GINGER

Ginger is well known for its heat-generating quality. This is due to a high concentration of gingerol, a compound that gives this root its characteristic spicy heat. Commonly used for treating upset stomachs, ginger contains high levels of antioxidants and may also aid in blood flow and circulation. For culinary purposes, raw ginger is delicious in salad dressings, stir fries, and marmalade. Ground ginger, on the other hand, is usually used in sweet dishes, like pumpkin pie and gingerbread and, of course, in ginger ale. A relative of ginger, cardamom is another warm spice, loved for its spicy flavor and used in savory dishes, such as curry, roasted vegetables, and sausages.

For culinary purposes, raw ginger is delicious in salad dressings, stir fries, and marmalade.

HONORABLE MENTION

Cumin is a slightly less common warm spice, but deserves mention, nonetheless. As with all warming spices, cumin seeds have a distinctive, pungent flavor that brings warmth to the taste buds. Commonly used in chilis, baked beans and stews, this aromatic spice is found in curry powder and has been used throughout history for both culinary and medicinal purposes.  

*Note: This article is purely informational. Please consult with a healthcare professional on any health and nutritional matters.