Add spice to your life

Can you add years to your life by adding spice to your food?

I hate drawing conclusions from inconclusive research, but this was irresistible. The BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) in August published results of an observational study that examined the diets of almost a half-million people in China over seven years.

The study observed that the risk of death for those who ate spicy foods one or two days a week was 10 percent lower compared to those who ate spicy meals less than once a week. Those who ate spicy foods three to seven times a week had a 14 percent lower risk of death.

It’s a correlational, not a causational, relationship.

Chili peppers have health benefits

While the journal warned that the study shouldn’t prompt anyone to change their diet, Nita Fourouhi from Cambridge University, in an editorial accompanying the article said there have been other indications the chili pepper and its bioactive compound, capsaicin, have health benefits that include anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties.

“Future research is needed to establish whether spicy food consumption has the potential to improve health and reduce mortality directly, or if it is merely a marker of other dietary and lifestyle factors,” she wrote.

Nutritionist Rosemary Stanton, a visiting fellow at the University of New South Wales, said spicy foods are known to be more satisfying. People who eat bland food are more likely to overeat.

Another British professor, Kevin McConway from the Open University, warned against using the study to justify the great English pastime of going out for a few pints and a hot curry. The relationship between eating spicy food and a lower death rate was apparent only in people who didn’t drink alcohol at all, he said.

As for me, this just makes me happy about my love of spicy foods of all kinds: Mexican, Chinese, Thai, Indian, Italian.

Don’t be a wimp!

When I go out for Thai food with a group of friends and they all order it “mild” or even (gasp!) “no spice,” I think to myself, “What a bunch of wimps!”

Though I must say it’s an acquired taste. I remember my first curry, when I was a freshman in college. A friend invited me to dinner at the home of some people who had spent some time in India, so their dish was pretty authentic. I thought I was an adventurous eater and I was very much looking forward to the meal, but to my untrained palate, it was ghastly — though I don’t think it was the heat so much as the flavor.

I really came to like curry when I lived in England for two years during and after college, and Indian/Pakistani food was about the cheapest meal you could get aside from fish and chips.

We started out with mild dishes, then graduated to more spice. How proud I was of my husband (then fiancé) when he ordered a “vindaloo,” which can be roughly translated as “set you on fire.”

Here’s a recipe for a Malaysian dish called mee goring that comes from the cookbook Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi. The spice in it comes from sambal oelek, a chili paste easily found in Asian groceries. If you can’t find it, use another garlic chili paste or Sriracha, which is becoming very easy to find these days. You might need a little more Sriracha to get the same heat as you would from sambal oelek or garlic chile paste.


Dishes pop with paprika

When we were in Budapest three years ago we brought back little containers of paprika as gifts. It’s probably the best gift you can bring someone from

Hungary, because Hungarian pepper is regarded as the best in the world.

Unfortunately, we neglected to buy any for ourselves, but luckily a friend visited Budapest a few months ago and brought us back little sample-size sacks of hot paprika and sweet paprika. These will join the jar of smoked paprika I already had in my spice collection: a paprika for every occasion!

Paprika is one of the world’s most popular spices. Even cooks who have little more than salt, pepper, garlic and oregano on hand will likely also have a bottle of paprika. Made from dried and ground red chili peppers, it adds a dash of color to any dish just by being sprinkled on top.

A New World spice

Chili peppers were unknown until the discovery of the New World—amazing when you consider how popular they have become in Asian and European cooking.

Hungarians were particularly drawn to the zesty flavor of paprika. When the laborious process of turning dried peppers into paprika was mechanized during the Industrial Revolution, the Hungarian city of Szeged became the center of the industry. Cheaper than black pepper, paprika became a staple forHungarian  home cooks.

Until the 1920s, the only kind of paprika available was the hot kind. Then a breeder in Szeged discovered a sweeter variety of the pepper, and propagated it by grafting. The sweet plant is the most popular type today.

Spain also produces paprika, mainly the smoked variety.

Paprika came back to the New World with Hungarian immigrants in the 19th century.

High in Vitamin C

A Hungarian scientist Dr. Szent Gyorgyi won a Nobel Prize in 1937 for his work with paprika pepper pods and Vitamin C research. Paprika peppers have seven times as much Vitamin C as oranges. (Though one must take such statements with the proverbial grain of salt; you’d never eat as much paprika as orange!)

The paprika you buy in the supermarket doesn’t have much flavor and is best used to give color to dishes. For real paprika flavor, use sweet or hot paprika labeled “Hungarian” paprika.

Paprika is an important part of many Hungarian dishes, including (duh!) Chicken Paprika (also called Chicken Paprikash). This recipe comes from my old standby, The Joy of CookingIf you are kosher or want to cook the dish dairy-free, you can use a soy-based product from Tofutti called Better Than Sour Cream.