The Energetics of Kitchen Herbs & Spices (An Introduction to a Large Subject)
Spices are a very special part of the diet, and understanding their energetics is important for enjoyable and healthful eating. Because they are used in such small amounts, spices and kitchen herbs are very useful in studying the energetics of food. It is not their nutritional content or their use as traditional preservatives as much as the potent responses they elicit within us that make kitchen herbs and spices so useful. Because they are powerful in small amounts, they are also frequently misunderstood and misused.
Seen on a continuum, kitchen herbs and spices lie somewhere between foods and medicinal herbs, often overlapping into both categories. Used wisely, spices and kitchen herbs help us digest meals, get back on track from common ailments, and open our senses. Used incorrectly, they easily become habitual dietary indiscretions, interfering with our attempts to move forward. Spices, as a very dynamic part of diet, either help or hinder our efforts at healing, including cultivation practices, herbal or acupuncture strategies, and Western drugs or procedures.
Further, spices have been moving forces in world history, central to the meeting of civilizations and the discovery of continents. All over the world kitchen herbs and spices have been used for cuisine, food preservation, and as medicines. They were expensive, rare, and highly prized. Today, spices are cheap and readily available, and through a kind of inflation of taste, spices are often over-emphasized in cuisine, leading to problems of overuse.
A cook is always thinking about what makes a meal work well. The macro and micronutrients necessary for complete nutrition are provided through grains, vegetables, fruits and protein foods (beans, nuts, seeds, dairy, fish or meats). Spices and herbs support three other distinct functions: they stimulate appetite, aid digestion and provide directionality. Further, like medicinal herbs, spices can be used to support specific organ energetics.
When cooking for someone elderly or weakened by stress or illness, it is essential to tend appetite and support digestion. If very weak, food should be bland and long-cooked to increase digestibility, but as recovery progresses very soon the diet needs to bring more nourishment, sometimes leading the recovery with gentle challenges to raise appetite and strengthen digestion. Salt and the use of personal comfort foods can be important to make food very appealing, but also very important are the gently warming spices such as rosemary, oregano, marjoram, fresh ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg or clove. Warming spices and kitchen herbs are also very important for long-time vegetarians whose digestive tracts can tend to cool down (meat requires—and therefore calls up—more stomach fire). From this perspective, it’s easy to see that the energetics of food are equally or more important than the material substances they contain.
Many traditional dishes are built around a deep understanding of how spices and kitchen herbs help digest the food they accompany. Seeds like caraway or poppy help digest carbohydrates; they are often baked into breads, especially heavy breads such as rye or bagels. Cumin helps digest meats and beans; it is standard in meat stews from Morocco and chili from Texas. Oregano aids digestion of carbs and fats and is standard on pizza. There are countless examples of traditional dietary wisdom in classic dishes.
For this reason, spices and kitchen herbs are usually classified by cooks according to the cuisines where they are prominent or foods they traditionally accompany: rosemary with lamb or cinnamon in apple pie. This is useful for cooking clarity and for both traditional continuity and cuisine fusions. Without dismissing this cuisine-only viewpoint, understanding the energetics of spices as assessed in Chinese medicine can add tremendous depth to our spice use, including many new possibilities for creative cooking. Chinese medicine dietary tradition treats spices and kitchen herbs with the same methodical systematizing it uses for medicinal herbs: assessing by taste, qi (thermostatic influence), law of signature based on part of plant, directionality, humor effected, zang fu and channel affinity or influence.
Beyond aiding digestion, spices and kitchen herbs provide directionality (vegetables are also important for directionality in the diet). While meats, grains and tubers mostly support the center, nearly all spices and kitchen herbs stimulate movement from the center to the exterior. It’s easy to see how spices can help a heavy diet be more balanced, but overuse of spices, especially hot spices (garlic, onions, hot peppers) can be a cause of dehydration (moving fluids too much from the center and drying the body in the process) or irritability and sleeping difficulties (unsettling the shen).
All spices move qi and fluids, but differentiation is important. Some are strongly ascending (e.g., rosemary or garlic), some focus more internally (e.g., ginger, turmeric), while some are descending. (As expected, these would be relatively rarer, mostly seed spices). This is very important to consider. The use of rosemary, for example, is excellent in the morning to uplift qi—perhaps with a pinch of tarragon on eggs with three spears of asparagus—but inappropriate in the evening if aiming for a restful sleep. Similarly, if trying to use garlic to cleanse digestion, it is necessary to counteract its strong ascending quality with a dietary envoy—as in herbal medicine practice—such as carrots and sesame seeds. Using this knowledge, it’s easy to create a therapeutic side dish. Add other descending ingredients if you like, such as mushrooms, a seaweed or even walnuts, included at each meal for several days for a moderate cleanse.
Along with directionality, it is important to consider the qi or thermostatic quality of herbs and spices. At first, categorize herbs and spices broadly. Warming spices are the safest and most common, including most of the dried leafy herbs, seed spices and rhizomes such as ginger and turmeric. Cooling kitchen herbs are important because they are relatively less common, but do include mint, parsley, cilantro, and thyme. The hot spices are extremely popular today but are the ones that should be used with the most caution, including not only hot peppers, but also onions and garlic (sometimes also clove). Hot spices are best considered to be medicinal herbs for short term use (acute conditions). They strongly stimulate exocrine fluids (tearing as you slice them, salivating as you taste them and stimulating internal fluid secretion after you have eaten them). Moving internal fluids as they do, they can be useful for immune function (Wei Qi) if sufficient fluid is available. People with complaints of reflux or urgent hunger (excess stomach fire), signs of dehydration on their tongue or blood/fluid/hormonal deficiency in their pulses should avoid hot spices.
Although all spices are classified with the same taste in Chinese medicine source books (the term is xin/spicy), in my training that term is usefully differentiated into three types of spicy taste.
Spicy refers mostly to the basic kitchen herbs (e.g., oregano, rosemary, basil), and classic spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin, coriander seed, etc. These spices can be thought of as stimulating Qi; most are warming.
Acrid refers to leafy herbs that are minty or tingling (including mint, shiso, cilantro, lemongrass, etc.) These herbs are often cooling.
Pungent refers to the sharper spices, including bulbs (scallions, onions, garlic), some roots (ginger, turmeric) and the hot peppers (capsicum type, black pepper and Szechuan pepper). The pungent spices are usually warming or hot and go to the blood level.
Salty is also a taste category in Chinese Medicine, including not only salt itself (of various types) but also spices or vegetables that leave a mineral-like sensation on the tongue. In the context of kitchen use, salt can be thought of as representing minerals (one third of the Shen Nong Ben Cao is devoted to mineral use) and can be seen as cooling (minerals are generally cooling). The well-known property of salt to retain water can be used skillfully as in herbal medicine to provide hydration to soften hardnesses that resist clearing.
Furthermore, the part of the plant a spice comes from is a very early and important criterion for assessing function, through the law of signature or when careful assessment shows a deviation from what may be expected. Seeds, for example, are the expression of the Jing of a plant, and as seeds, usually have a descending directionality (seeds fall). Many seeds—such as sesame seeds—indeed have most of their influence in the lower abdomen, but others have a floating quality (e.g., poppy seeds). In any case, there are common spices from all the parts of plants, providing another method for classifying the kitchen herbs and spices.
Each spice can be known much more thoroughly, revealing properties and uses that can’t be included in a simplified chart, but seeing things simply is important. In order not to feel overwhelmed by detail, begin by noting Qi/thermostatic effect, pairing cooling herbs with warming foods, such as thyme and tarragon with chicken or eggs, or vice versa, pairing warming cinnamon, clove and nutmeg with cooling fruits. Rely on leafy herbs or seed spices to aid digestion and relieve any sense of bloating or stagnation. Differentiating which are the very best kitchen herbs in the moment is less important than beginning to explore them energetically and improving the enjoyment of food. There may be days when an emotional focus is foremost, for example serving a hearty meal with rosemary and mustard seed to invigorate conversation at a dinner party, using cumin and saffron to encourage sharing of feelings in a smaller setting, or yogurt with vanilla and a splash of rosewater to calm the spirit after a period of high pressure or being too busy.
In today’s dining culture, strong spices are often greatly overused. Too often, ‘spicy’ only means hot, and dishes stress our systems instead of making skillful use of the wide spectrum of spices (and their functions) available to us today. Even whole cultures are moving toward more extremes of spicy heat. Gradually, individuals will adapt to spice escalation, but the proof is in pulse and tongue diagnosis. For example, on a recent trip to South Korea I was stunned by the constant use of raw garlic and meals covered in red spices… how much this is a fairly recent escalation was clear during a meal at an old-fashioned restaurant that served the same set-meal since it opened in 1970; this was country food that had well-balanced tastes with a few different hints of heat. Further confusion can arise as common Western health advice to reduce salt intake features recipes relying on overuse of kitchen herbs and spices to add flavor, resulting in dishes that are woefully unbalanced and ultimately do not support health.
Spices and kitchen herbs are potent players in the kitchen, often closer to medicinal herbs than to the grains, meats, fishes, fruits and vegetables that they enhance. It’s here that we can fine tune the energetics of the meals we offer, using insights from the masters of Chinese medicine along with our awareness of our current needs, cultural backgrounds, and evolving skills.