If there is one thing heard most often about healthy eating, it is the inevitable complaint that it is “bland.” Yet, when one thinks about those parts of the world where incidences of heart disease, diabetes and cancer are considerably less than in the United States, one doesn’t necessarily think “bland” cuisne. Japan, China, much of the rest of Asia, and the Mediterranean generally have populations with better overall diet-related health. And yet few would think of the cuisines of these regions as being boring.
Sure, research shows that there are a lot of reasons for this and, not being an expert in the field, I won’t delve too far into those. Some can and some cannot be replicated here.
But what I want to talk about is taste and how even the healthiest dishes can be deep and complex in flavor – kicked up a notch, as a certain annoying TV personality would say – by the use of spice.
When I was a young single, my spice cabinet was a dusty place where I kept the salt and pepper and maybe a dried herb or two. And you know what? If you’re eating take-out, fast food and frozen dinners, what else do you need? After all, those things are pre-loaded with sodium and lots of things I can’t pronounce to provide flavor. But once you commit to healthy home cooking, it’s time to broaden your horizons.
Everyone has his own taste when it comes to spice, so this isn’t about a shopping list of must-haves. Rather, following are a few suggestions on how to determine your own preferences.
Ask. Even a healthy single home cook goes out to eat, and Americans love ethnic food. Never miss an opportunity to ask about an ingredient or seasoning that you like in a dish. Usually, you will find restaurant staff most cooperative.
Browse. Whether it’s a cooking magazine or cookbook of ethnic cuisine you run across in your doctor’s office, have a look at the less familiar ingredients and take the time to research them on your smart phone while you wait. It isn’t like the waiting time to see your doctor is going to become shorter anytime soon.
Shop. Americans have discovered just how much impact spices from around the world can have on a dish. Simple stir-fried vegetables can be elevated to a succulent delight with a spice combination that works for you. Today, there are shops focused exclusively on the spices of the world and where even the most exotic can be found. Even your average market carries a much larger variety than it might have a decade ago. Talk to the shopkeepers. If they offer samples, try the aroma and a slight taste of some spices you’ve learned about or that are recommended to you.
Taste. In the absence of a recipe, some people struggle with the use of unfamiliar spices, getting the right quantity, using in the right kind of dish, etc. Here’s how I test a new spice: chicken and eggs. Other than salt and pepper, try adding your newly acquired spice to a piece of baked skinless chicken breast and see how you like it. Imagine what additional spice or seasonings might pair with it. Often, seasonings prevalent in the same part of the world pair very well together, but it isn’t a hard and fast rule. On your second effort, try adding a complementary spice to see how you like the result. Scrambled eggs are another good, bland canvas upon which to construct your experimental dish.
It will take a little time to develop your own palate for spice. But not only are many spices terrific for your health, according to numerous studies, but they also elevate even the healthiest of whole ingredients into the kind of meal that will make you forget all about those takeout menus plastering your refrigerator door.
Spices and their use has been a real key to my own weight-loss success to date, and they can help in your own efforts as well.
-Michael W. Sasser is Oklahoma Magazine’s senior editor and an award-winning journalist. Neither a medical nor nutrition expert, he shares his personal weight loss journey exclusively with Oklahoma Magazine readers. Reach him at [email protected].