"I often quote myself. It adds spice to my conversation." —George Bernard Shaw
Bill Mitchell used to speak of how medicinal herbs ‘informed the brain.’ He used the term to describe his concept that these plants contained valuable information—almost intact thoughts or ways of seeing the world, concepts, and even lessons for our souls—encoded in their chemistry. The plants could only impart these messages to us if we consumed them, deeply tasting them. By exposure to their chemical constituents, our brains would learn new and deeper methods of comprehension.
I think of this sometimes when I’m reading the diet diaries patients bring in for my review. I think what bland, tasteless lives so many of us live. How is it that we tolerate a lack of flavor?
There was a significant period in history in which international commerce, the alliances between nations, and the major wars between countries were driven by only one thing: the pursuit of spice. We forget how sought-after these plant products were at one point in time. Yet now that spices are readily and cheaply available, we fail to take advantage of how easy it is to access these treasures.
Thus I want to tell you about my new favorite book. It’s a book about spices, a kind of material medica that goes A through Z the 50 most important culinary spices. Or perhaps I should say the 50 most important healing spices. In this book the lists are synonymous.
Bharat B. Aggarwal wrote the book, Healing Spices, with Debora Yost. If you follow the research related to naturopathic oncology, you should recognize his name. Aggarwal is listed as a coauthor on what seems to be an endless number of research papers and studies that focus on plant extracts and their anticancer action. Having read much of his research, I consider that his approach to preventing and treating cancer is probably the most congruent to what we do as naturopathic oncologists as any medical researcher I can name. Aggarwal’s research has done more to inform my practice of medicine than any other modern researcher.
He wants his readers to learn to cook with, appreciate, and enjoy spicesÃ¢â‚¬â€not just for the sheer pleasure, but also for the health benefits.
Aggarwal earned his PhD in biochemistry in 1977 at the University of California, Berkeley. Since 1989 he has headed the Cytokine Research Section of the Department of Molecular Oncology at MD Anderson Cancer Center. He writes, “The primary interest of my laboratory is in the area of cytokines as regulators of tumor cell growth. The specific aims of our Cytokine Research section are as follows: (a) identification of novel antiproliferative agents that are specific to tumor cells, and (b) investigation of mechanisms by which tumor cells develop resistance to cytokines and examination of methods to overcome this resistance.”
Our job as naturopathic physicians working with people who have cancer is to take Aggarwal’s research and bring it in to our patients’ lives. Thus it is no wonder that every major paper of interest to us, as naturopathic oncologists, whether it be on the common anticancer phytochemicals like curcumin and resveratrol, or the more esoteric substances like sanguinarine or staurosporine, seems to have Aggarwal’s name among the authors.
This is the first book that I know of that Aggarwal has written for an audience that doesn’t have a graduate degree in some biological science. It’s written straightforwardly enough that I can read it for pleasure. In this book, Aggarwal comes across as a person quite distinct from the dry researcher investigating the likes of tumor necrosis factors. He writes as someone who loves being alive, and part of his pleasure is in the tastes and smells of his world. He is passionate about wanting to share that pleasure with his readers.
When you survey cookbooks, 93% of recipes contain at least one spice, but the average is only four. Aggarwal would like to teach people how to double those numbers, to use six or ten spices in every meal. He wants his readers to learn to cook with, appreciate, and enjoy spices—not just for the sheer pleasure, but also for the health benefits. And the health benefits of using more spices are the carrot he holds out and waves in front of the reader's nose. There are few scientists who know more about the biochemistry behind the health benefits that spices can bring to people.
After introductory chapters that cover spice science in general and buying, storing, and using spices in particular, Aggarwal goes through a selected list of 50 spices, devoting a sizeable chapter to each. In each section and for each spice, he covers a number of aspects. First, general information about the source of the spice, where and how it is grown, and interesting facts about its history. Next he reviews the chief biochemical actions and effects on health. For example, for ground almonds he reviews the science on monounsaturated fats, the cholesterol– and C-reactive protein–lowering effects of eating almonds, and also their therapeutic effect on lowering high blood pressure, treating metabolic syndrome, and reducing weight. He talks about how to buy, cook with, store, and eat each spice. A decent-sounding recipe, in which the particular spice being discussed has the prominent role, is provided. For each section there are charts that summarize medicinal benefits, complementary spices and foods, and other recipes in the book that utilize the spice under discussion.
Though I regularly write about food for this journal, our readers may not know that not only do I like to cook, I attended bakery trade school in the distant past and also have a degree in food science. I have always been fascinated by the history and chemistry of foods. This is the best of the “food science” books that have become popular. This one is actually interesting to read and useful in our practices. Every page has information that gives me pause, that triggers one of those, “Now that’s interesting,” moments. For example, I now know the story behind Peter Piper (aka Pierre Poivre). Peter Piper is credited with, among other exploits, smuggling clove buds off the Dutch island of Amron sometime between 1769 and 1770—a crime punishable by death had he been caught. He later cultivated clove trees in the Caribbean from where they spread around the world. Thus whether for the flavor of apple pie, Chinese five spice, or chile adobo, we owe a debt to Peter Piper.
Much to my embarrassment, there are spices in this book that I don’t know what to do with—starting on page 1 with Ajowan. Luckily there are enough descriptions, instructions, and recipes to help me figure it out. The book finishes with charts and appendices of useful information, including charts of which spices to utilize by health condition. Can you name 43 spices useful for cancer treatment? I’m going to turn that one into a patient handout. Or can you name 13 spices to encourage patients with Alzheimer’s disease to eat? There are charts of spice combinations that taste good together, lists of which spices are typical to find together by specific nationalities, and then pages of recipes for spice combinations. There are recipes for Indian garam, sambaar, and chaat masalas; Moroccan ras-el-hanout; berbere from Ethiopia; Egyptian dukkah; Jamaican jerk marinade; and even Chesapeake Bay seafood seasoning.
This book is a treasure. No one in naturopathic practice should be without it. So much of our practice has been reduced to telling our patients what not to eat. We should instead, for many patients, be actively instructing them in what to eat. Perhaps the most benefit may not come from shifting carbohydrate, fat, and protein ratios, but to just get them to spice up what they are already eating. This is the book I want my patients reading and experimenting with.
I do have one complaint about the book: There are no citations. Throughout the the book Aggarwal references one study after another, name-dropping authors, mentioning universities where research was done or the journal in which a study was published, but he provides no actual citations. I cannot imagine this is Aggarwal’s choice, the experienced researcher that he is. I assume instead that this was a choice made by the publisher, who believed the public would find the footnotes unnecessary. Being someone with a taste for reading primary research, the lack of chapter endnotes left something of a sour taste but I devoured the book nevertheless.