In this special dietary series about food for the brain, Chef Seeto reveals there are special ingredients that may just help prevent age-related cognitive decline, helping us to maintain healthy, smart brains as we get older. In today's article, we learn the Indian labourers brought with them a powerful Ayurvedic spice that has been healing the brain for thousands of years — turmeric.
SOMEONE once asked me if Indian curry was bad for you as they wondered if their cultural food was causing non-communicable diseases like heart disease and diabetes.
The quick answer is no; as spicy foods have sustained many ancient civilisations without causing disease, and in fact was more a medicinal food if prepared with whole and fresh ingredients.
The more complicated answer is that yes, there are elements or lack of elements, that may cause the traditional Indian diet to become unhealthy. The problems arise when traditional dietary habits are replaced with a modern diet that lacks fresh fruit, leafy greens, fibrous vegetables and fresh water. It gets worse when there is an excess of refined flours (instead of besan), processed oils (instead of ghee), refined salts (instead of sea salt) and refined white sugar (instead of raw jaggery or honey); sadly a diet that is most commonly eaten by most Fijians; no matter what their race.
In fact, many Indian spices are renowned for their medicinal qualities but one particular ancient spice is today known as one of the most potent brain and anti-NCD foods - turmeric, or haldi. Indian medicine men have known this secret for thousands of years and Western doctors have long purported its medical effects going back to the early 18th century.
Haldi, as we commonly know it in Fiji, is not only used to purify and sanctify the body during in Hindu festivities, but it does amazing things to our brain and could very well be the secret to long life.
Curcumin is the component of turmeric (Curcuma longa) that gives the spice — and many curries — its bright yellow colour. It is one of more than 5000 flavonoids, a group of plant-based compounds thought to contribute to the health benefits of fruit and vegetables. While any meaningful clinical effects are far from proven, at least the trials have a scientific foundation. Curcumin has significant anti-inflammatory properties that are said to rival those found in ibuprofen, the active ingredient in Nurofen.
Unlike over-the-counter drugs though, turmeric has no known toxic effects on the body. Curcumin's powerful antioxidant advantages have been shown to protect healthy cells in research, particularly those found in the colon, from cancer-causing agents. It aids the body in destroying mutated cancer cells before they have a chance to spread to other areas.
Turmeric also helps to lower cholesterol and prevent heart disease.
All that, and it's tasty too! So what's the secret? It seems that the curcumin compound helps increase the activity of certain neurotransmitters in the brain and aids in the delivery of the basic energy like glucose and oxygen to the brain to help improve overall health. And because curcumin helps decrease inflammation and oxidative stress, it seems to have longer-term benefits for the ageing brain.
Ancient medicinal spice
This ancient spice, celebrated for centuries as both food and medicine, has resurfaced within the health and nutrition communities thanks to the discovery of curcumin, the healing substance which supplies its vibrant colour and health benefits. Though it can now be found throughout the tropics including Fiji, India has been the largest producer of turmeric since ancient times.
In recent years, turmeric has attracted quite a bit of interest for its natural healing properties, but it has actually been used medicinally for over 4500 years. Analyses of clay pots discovered near New Delhi uncovered residue from turmeric, ginger and garlic that dates back as early as 2500 BCE.
It was around 500 BCE that turmeric emerged as an important part of Ayurvedic medicine. Ayurveda is an ancient Indian system of natural healing that is still practised today. Ayurveda translates to "science of life"— ayur meaning "life" and veda meaning "science or knowledge". Inhaling fumes from burning turmeric was said to alleviate congestion, turmeric juice aided with the healing of wounds and bruises, and turmeric paste was applied to all sorts of skin conditions - from smallpox and chicken pox to blemishes and shingles.
Ayurvedic literature contains over 100 different terms for turmeric, including jayanti, meaning "one who is victorious over diseases," and matrimanika, meaning "as beautiful as moonlight".
just a curry spice
Turmeric is quickly becoming "the" superfood of this century. Curry recipes aside, it is now commonly used in golden-hued lattes, soups, sauces and vegan ice cream. It was even called a "rising star" by Google Food Trends last year, since searches for turmeric jumped a whopping 56 per cent between November and January. And as a nutritional chef, I'm thrilled, since this healthy food trend is both delicious and backed by research but like everything in nature, too much may cause unwanted side effects.
Check with your doctor first before increasing consumption of turmeric, especially if you are already sick or pregnant.
One common recipe is to make a turmeric paste which is the base of turmeric lattes and ice creams. Turmeric paste is a mixture of ground turmeric, extra virgin coconut oil, cinnamon, and black pepper. And while black pepper may seem like an odd ingredient, it actually helps boost turmeric's absorption from the digestive system into the bloodstream. Sip on turmeric tea by adding a small pinch of ground turmeric to warm water or your favourite tea along with lemon to start you day.
I love to keep ground turmeric handy to season nearly anything savoury, including scrambled eggs, sautÃ©ed veggies, soups, stir frys, and pulses like oven roasted chickpeas. You can also fold a little turmeric into nut butter or hummus, whisk it into homemade vinaigrette, or stir it into oatmeal along with coconut milk, maple syrup, cinnamon, and nuts or sesame seeds. Or vary your ice block recipe by whipping turmeric paste with one cup coconut milk or coconut cream, half of a ripe banana, a few pitted dates, honey, and a little extra fresh ginger. Pour into moulds, freeze, and enjoy. The options are endless!
— latest trend
With turmeric arguably enjoying something of a fad status right now, one the most faddish uses taking the world by storm is undoubtedly the turmeric latte — long a mainstay of vegan cafes and health food outlets. The warm, mellow yellow beverage is now gaining footholds in hipster neighbourhoods the world over. There are all manner of thoughts on the best way to make a turmeric latte.
Some use freshly grated, others use the dried root steeped in boiling water, strain and add milk and honey. Some popular cafes are doubling down on its health benefits by adding ginger and cinnamon. Most cafes tend to keep it vegan and avoid cow's milk to use alternatives like almond and cashew milk, but opinion is divided over the best milk to use.
So as my special gift today, please try my Fijian version of this hip new hot beverage, which uses fresh coconut milk and virgin coconut oil for a touch of local medicine. And as a nightcap, try a splash of the new Fiji-made coconut vodka in this warm, medicinal toddy.