Are you cold?
I certainly am. Less than month into this frigid winter, B and I have already burned through last year’s well-seasoned firewood. We’re now enjoying the dubious—and smoky—pleasures of recently split green oak logs.
I’ve been wrapping myself in wool shawls—the pale Indian paisley spangled with sequins that came from Paris is a new favorite—but nothing is quite as warming as a fiery spice tea from a recipe in a forgotten book I unearthed while rummaging in our library a few days ago.
The hottest-tasting spices in the tea are ginger and cinnamon, both of which also offer surprising health benefits.
In “Little Bit of Spice for Health, but Which One,” (The Wall Street Journal, October 15, 2013, p. D2), Laura Johannes writes that a recent “meta-analysis” published in the Annals of Family Medicine found that cinnamon caused “a significant decrease in blood glucose levels in diabetics as well as a drop in cholesterol….Doses ranged from 120 milligrams a day to six grams.” The article cautions that most research is based on cassia rather than Ceylon or “true” cinnamon, and that eating too much cassia on a daily basis risks liver damage due to coumarin, a “naturally occurring compound” in the spice.
While leafing through Tonics: More than 100 Recipes That Improve the Body and the Mind (Harper Perennial, 1997), the book I rediscovered the other day, I ran across author Robert A. Barnett’s passage on cinnamon’s effect on glucose. He writes that the spice seems to enhance the effectiveness of insulin and “may help prevent the common decline in glucose tolerance that often occurs with aging and sometimes leads to adult-onset diabetes.” In Chinese medicine, he says, cinnamon also serves as a “classic ‘assisting’ herb,’” in part by stimulating the circulation; it is known as well for its digestive and anti-inflammatory properties.
As for ginger, the latest research suggests that it may offer relief for asthma sufferers. In “Can Ginger Help with Asthma?” (The Wall Street Journal, January 7, 2014, p. D2), Laura Johannes says that the spice “is getting attention among scientists for what appears to be its capacity to open constricted airways.” A study published online in the January issue of the American Journal of Respiratory Cell and Molecular Biology, states that ginger appears to work by “simultaneously inhibiting an enzyme that helps cause airway muscles to constrict and activating another enzyme that tends to relax the airways.”
In Tonics, Barnett catalogues ginger’s other health benefits: Used as a digestive aid for centuries, it also helps prevent nausea, inhibits blood clotting, and reduces inflammation. He cites a 1994 British study showing that certain of ginger’s compounds protect against viruses that cause the common cold.
Among the recipes in Tonics is one for Ginger Tea with Warming Spices. All the spices—including Chinese cinnamon, green cardamom pods and cloves—are quite pungent, which helps the body fight off winter’s chill. And while the tea has a distinctly fiery taste, fresh mint leaves add a cool, aromatic undertone.
If you’re concerned about possible effects of coumarin in Chinese cinnamon—actually a strong tasting variety of cassia—you can substitute its milder cousin, Ceylon cinnamon. The health benefits of “true” cinnamon have not been tested, but as Anna Sortun, chef at Oleana in Boston, observes, it has “lighter, brighter citrus tones” than the other, more pungent spice.
On a cold afternoon as hard rain pelts against the window, this “healthy tea” is not only warming but full of exotic flavors that recall sultrier climes. As I sip the hot tea, my cold fingers drift to the belly of my Aladdin’s lamp teapot. If I rub it just a little, who knows? Maybe I’ll get my wish and wake up in…
Well, you fill in the blank. Just be sure to stay warm!
Fiery Ginger Tea with Warming Spices
(adapted from Tonics: More Than 100 Recipes That Improve the Body and the Mind by Robert A. Barnett, Harper Perennial, 1997)
A 1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated
A 1/2-inch piece Chinese cinnamon stick, or a 2-inch piece of Ceylon cinnamon
4 green cardamom pods, lightly crushed to release the seeds
5 whole cloves
¼ cup chopped fresh mint leaves
Honey, to taste
1. Bring 4 cups of water to a boil. While waiting for it to boil, rinse the teapot in hot water.
2. Put the ginger, cinnamon, crushed cardamom pods and seeds, cloves, and chopped mint in the teapot. Add the boiling water, and let it steep for 5 minutes
3. Strain the tea into cups, and sweeten to taste with honey.