Super Food or Guilty Pleasure? Curry Might Be Both!


So, I started this post with the idea to provide a list of foods that would bolster the immune system. This was spurred by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and while no amount of immune-promoting diet will protect you from the virus, it can only help to be less susceptible to colds, respiratory infections and other conditions that might make you question what's going on with your body. Now is the right time to take care of yourself, and feel just a little better mentally, and physically.



As I was beginning my research, I started to notice a pattern. We all know that stocking up on fruits and vegetables, which gives you plenty of Vitamins A & C, helps keep your immune system running smoothly, and certain spices are known for their antimicrobial, antiviral, antioxidant and even analgesic properties. When I began to compile a list, I thought "Wait a minute... literally all of these things are found in most curries."


Curry is an English word that the British made up when they colonized India a few centuries ago. It may come from the Indian word 'kari' which just means sauce. In western culture, it describes a wide range of dishes from all over Southeast Asia, ranging from Tikka Masala in India, to Panang in Thailand. Basically, it describes any dish from that region that features cooked vegetables and/or meat in a spicy sauce served over rice. (1) If that sounds vague, well, it is. If you go to an Indian or Thai restaurant and ask for curry, they'll give you a funny look and ask which one. You'll get very different results based on what you choose. If you go to India or Thailand and ask for curry, you won't get anything. It's not a word or even a concept there.


Now not all dishes we call curry are necessarily healthy. If it has tons of cream and butter, or lots of meat and no veggies then you're not going to get the full range of health benefits herein described. That's not to say that it needs to be watery, bland or even meatless. The vegetables carry a lot of flavor, and the bulk of your vitamins and minerals, so if you want, add meat, but don't skip the veggies! The spices are where we're getting a lot of power-packed, super-food-like health benefits, but that doesn't mean you need to make your curry super spicy! (Although, as you'll read below, the spiciness is good for you too.) You can stick to the milder spices like turmeric, cumin and cardamom, if you can't take the heat. Lastly, I use coconut milk instead of dairy. I highly recommend this because of the coconut-y flavor, which I consider essential.


Coconut Milk:

Wait, wait, wait, but coconut milk has saturated fat just like cream and butter, right? Yes, but that doesn't mean they affect your body the same way. Though they're both examples of saturated fats, they contain different fatty acids. Let me start by saying, there's been little to no research on coconut milk, but coconut oil and whether or not it's better than butter or animal fat has been the subject of a few studies to date. More research needs to be done, but so far, the facts are these:


1. Coconut oil has more saturated fat than animal sources. (2)

2. Most of this fat is lauric acid which helps raise HDL, i.e. good cholesterol (2)

-> btw, good cholesterol is "good" partly because it actually helps clear bad cholesterol from the body. (3)

3. Coconut oil doesn't raise LDL (bad cholesterol) any more than olive oil, but butter raises it significantly more. (4)


Now, it's possible that processing coconut oil with heat may change the makeup of some of these fats, so when using OIL go for unrefined extra virgin. What about the fat in the coconut milk? This is usually pasteurized at no higher than 176 degrees fahrenheit. (5) This is well below the threshold needed to break down the fatty acids. (6) So we can safely assume our generous quantities of lauric acid are intact. The lauric acid in coconut fat is a reasonably effective antimicrobial, and may even promote self-destruction of cancer cells.

In addition, coconut MILK is a good source of potassium, magnesium and medium-chain triglycerides, which are easy on the liver, requiring no bile for digestion, and may help promote weight loss. (3)


Ginger

This refers to ginger root used in a lot of curries, Asian dishes, and spicy sweets. A true super food, ginger's benefits are plentiful. The active medicinal compound found in ginger is called gingerol, and you're going to get the highest quantities of this in raw, fresh ginger. Taking a ginger powder supplement can be useful for many common ailments as well, such as indigestion, nausea, high cholesterol and even menstrual pain or sore muscles. However, I recommend using fresh ginger to get the full range of benefits. Gingerol is strongly anti inflammatory and has strong antioxidant effects as well. Many diseases, from certain cancers to arthritis to Alzheimer's, are caused or worsened by inflammation. Ginger is well documented as a treatment or preventative for all these and more. Gingerol is also strongly antimicrobial, and can be used to help lower the risk of infections or treat certain infections of the mouth and upper respiratory system. In diabetics, it's even been shown to lower blood sugar. What can't this amazing root do? Both turmeric and galangal root (both essential parts of Indian and Thai curries) are closely related to this root, and have similar benefits. (7) (8) Turmeric in particular is touted for its health benefits, is widely available and is easy to add to almost any dish. We put it on our fried eggs.


Garlic

A compound called allicin, found in garlic, onions, leeks and other similar plants, has well-documented and strong antibacterial, antifungal, antiparasitic, and antiviral properties. It's potent enough that this naturally occurring chemical could be used topically to disinfect open wounds. It's most effective in gaseous form, so know that when you cry cutting onions, you're likely purging your sinuses of a lot of bacteria. (9) I actually recommend this if you've been suffering from stuffy sinuses, like cut up a whole bag of fresh onions. You'll be clear as day in no time, swear to god.

Unfortunately, allicin breaks down above about 180 degrees. So if you stir-fry, add to soup or really cook the garlic in almost any way, a lot of it breaks down. So, use it fresh when you can, (if you can stand the garlic breath) or you can add it to your curry after you've removed it from the heat. Still, garlic without allicin can help you avoid colds, reduce your blood pressure and reduce your LDL (the bad stuff). (10)


Hot Peppers

Time for my favorite part, THE HEAT! We're talking about a particular compound called capsaicin which is found in the genus of plant called capsicum. This genus is home to most of the peppers we use in cooking, including but not limited to: bell peppers, poblano peppers, jalapeno peppers, habanero peppers, thai peppers and tabasco peppers. These are a new world food, but are now found widely used throughout the world.

The spicier the pepper the more capsaicin it has. Capsaicin, despite the burn, has many impressive health benefits. It can help regulate your blood sugar. (11) It reduces inflammation, particularly in overweight individuals. (12) And despite being known to the public as... digestively problematic, the studies show that it can be used to kill bacteria that cause stomach ulcers, and to treat many types of cancer including colon cancer. (13) (14)

Ironically, the burning sensation from eating spicy food can also relieve pain. It does this two ways:


1. Capsaicin sort of tricks your brain into thinking it's being subjected to intense heat, thus the burning sensation. It does this by triggering the release of a certain neurochemical known as substance P, which then travels to the brain and tells you you're in pain. Your body can produce and replace this chemical, but not right away, so if you eat enough spicy food, your pain receptors run out of it, and you won't feel any more pain. Used to treat pain associated with arthritis, topical capsaicin ointments work on this principle. (15)


2. When your brain notices the pain signals firing, it releases endorphins including dopamine. This makes your feel REALLY GOOD. If you've ever eaten a super hot meal you might have noticed a tingly sensation after a while. This is directly tied to the brain's reward system and is why people who like spicy food can't get enough of it. (15)


Please keep in mind, REALLY LARGE amounts of capsaicin can, for instance, burn away the lining of your esophagus, so make it hot, but let's stay away from what I call "challenge foods." You can hurt yourself by chugging a bottle of JOLOKIASCOTCHBONNETXXXXDEATHSAUCE or whatever, but adding some hot chiles to your curry won't hurt you.


Vegetables

This one's easy. We all know Vitamin C is critical to supporting our immune systems. What you may not know, is that this vitamin is found ALL OVER the produce section. Gram for gram, red bell peppers have more of it than oranges. Cabbages, brussel sprouts, broccoli, sweet potatoes and tomatoes (all delicious in curries) all have significant amounts, and almost any fruit you put in your mouth will have plenty. If fresh fruits and vegetables are part of your daily diet, you don't need supplements. You DO need a lot more vitamin C when you are already sick, because your metabolic needs are higher as your body works hard to fight the infection. (16) Many supplements give you a whopping 1000 mg dose (take two of those and you could get nausea and abdominal cramps,) but studies show that getting anywhere over 200 mg a day while sick can shorten your recovery time. (17) You can easily get that in your diet.


So is curry a super food? Ya know, when I hear a food called a SUPER food, I take that to mean it's got super powers compared to Pringles and Hot Pockets. It's not going to magically turn you into a power-packed, energetic, go-getter that can run 12 miles before breakfast. The concept's generally a little overblown, but if by super food you mean SUPER delicious and SUPER nutritious, then absolutely!


Is it a guilty pleasure? Personally, I'm not a big fan of guilt in general. We need a new term for this. I don't feel guilty about listening to Ke$ha or getting cheap

Chinese takeout, but I do feel... rebellious... like,

If you judge me, I don't care, because

you're wrong and this sh*t's awesome!

I just own it. How about...

"daring delights" or "cheeky charms..."

I don't know, something that alliterates.

A rich curry is a pleasure either way,

so if making it naughty makes it more fun for you, then go for it. I'm not judging!


Here's a personal curry recipe that's so delectable, you'll swear it's a sin!

(Hint: to print, click the pic)

This is a SUPER easy and SUPER nutritious soup to serve on any occasion. However, I would particularly recommend it one a chilly fall evening to warm your bones with a little spice! Always a showstopper, this rich, savory dish makes a great first course or main event. While filling, it’s not much of a protein source so pair thoughtfully. The squash is an excellent source of Vitamin A, and the red bell pepper adds a hearty dose of Vitamin C, both essential for optimal immune function.

Squash (Prep beforehand)

It only takes a little over an hour, but if you know you’re gonna be tight on time the day of the meal, you can easily do this a day or two before. You’re gonna need: · A large butternut squash (You can also use kabocha squash. It’s DELICIOUS, and a little starchier than butternut which makes for nice, thick soup, but it is a little harder to prep) · About a Tablespoon of neutralish cooking oil Preheat your oven to 400° Peel the squash BEFORE you roast it. It’s much easier this way. Cut it down the middle (from pole to pole to use a geography metaphor.) Scoop out the seeds and any fibrous goop clinging to the cavity. We’re going to lay them skin side up, so oil any surfaces that are going to be touching the pan. Stick them in the oven, give them about 40 minutes then flip them. Test the squash. If you can insert a fork easily it’s done. Test multiple parts of the squash, as heat may not be distributed evenly. If not, give it another 10 or 20 minutes (face up this time) until tender. Wait for it to be cool enough to handle, then chop into rough chunks. The size doesn’t matter because we’re going to puree them eventually anyway.

The Soup!

· 1 Tbsp Oil (Coconut, olive or sesame will all taste great. Use whatever you want.) · 1 Red Bell Pepper (diced) · 1 Medium Onion (diced) · 1 tsp salt · 2 tsp ginger (I use paste, but fresh grated finely works too. If nothing else, use powdered) · 4 Cloves of Garlic (Minced or Pressed) · 1 tsp chili paste · 2 Jalapeños (optional!) · Prepped Squash (see above) · 1 Tbsp Curry powder · 2 Cups Broth (Vegetable or chicken is fine) · 14 oz Can full fat coconut milk (shake the can before opening to reincorporate the fat) · Salt to taste


Stir fry (cook quickly over high heat while mixing constantly) your onion and bell pepper together in the oil. Add the salt on top. When this gets slightly tender, add the garlic, ginger, chili paste and jalapeño and stir fry for another minute or two. Add the squash, stir to combine, then add your curry powder. Mix so everything gets coated, if a little browning and sticking happens on the bottom, that’s okay! Scrape it off and keep mixing. If it turns black, you screwed it up. Consider transferring to a new pot. When everything is nice and hot, deglaze (pour it straight onto the bottom of the pot and scrape off the stickage) with the broth. Once that’s combined add the coconut milk. Bring it to a simmer. If I have silken tofu laying around, I’ll add that as well. At this stage, you can let the soup simmer for up to an hour, or you can turn off the stove and puree it right away by transferring to a blender or food processor, or using an immersion blender (highly recommend, way easier to clean).


That’s it! Your soup is ready to enjoy.

Optional Toppings:

· Pumpkin seeds pan-toasted with a little salt and sesame oil (HIGHLY RECOMMEND)

· Cilantro

· Extra coconut milk or cream

· Fresh green onions


  1. Origin of the word 'curry' https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2019/04/why-we-call-indian-dishes-curry-colonial-history/586828/

  2. Coconut oil benefits https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/coconut-oil

  3. Saturated fat in Coconut Milk https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/323743#top-3-health-benefits

  4. Comparison of cholesterol effects of butter, coconut oil, and olive oil https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5855206/

  5. Processing of coconut milk http://www.pca.da.gov.ph/pdf/techno/coconut_milk.pdf

  6. Changes in fats produced by heating https://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/ed061p299

  7. Health Benefits of Ginger https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/11-proven-benefits-of-ginger#TOC_TITLE_HDR_6

  8. Review of Current studies on Ginger benefits https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3665023/

  9. Info on Allicin https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-25154-9

  10. Health benefits of garlic supplements https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/11-proven-health-benefits-of-garlic#section4

  11. Effects of capsaicin on blood sugar https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Kamon_Chaiyasit/publication/24176349_Pharmacokinetic_and_The_Effect_of_Capsaicin_in_Capsicum_frutescens_on_Decreasing_Plasma_Glucose_Level/links/5720ec8308ae5454b230f9c0/Pharmacokinetic-and-The-Effect-of-Capsaicin-in-Capsicum-frutescens-on-Decreasing-Plasma-Glucose-Level.pdf

  12. Capsaicin inhibits proinflammatory adipokine release https://febs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1016/j.febslet.2007.07.082

  13. Health benefits of Capsaicin https://www.uchicagomedicine.org/forefront/health-and-wellness-articles/spicy-foods-healthy-or-dangerous

  14. Capsaicin for treating colon cancer https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/jmf.2004.7.267

  15. Neurological effects of capsaicin https://helix.northwestern.edu/blog/2014/07/your-brain-capsaicin

  16. Vitamin C daily requirements https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29099763

  17. Vitamin C effects on common cold https://www.health.harvard.edu/cold-and-flu/can-vitamin-c-prevent-a-cold


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