Category Archives: Exploring the Spice Shelf

Tej Patta (Malabathrum or Malabar leaf, NOT Bay Leaf)

All About Tej Patta on Foodista
I made peas pulav for lunch today, and when I added  tej patta (usually – and erroneously, it turns out – refered to as bay leaves by most Indian cooks) to the oil, I found myself wondering yet again how closely related it might be to feuille de laurier ( laurel leaves), a popular herb  in Mediterranean and other western cuisines.

I had always imagined that the two might be related, since they look quite similar. But it turns out that they are very different.

Tej Patta (tamalpatra in Sanskrit and Marathi and often called bay leaf or Indian bay leaf in English) is a tough, three veined, very aromatic leaf that is much used in north Indian cuisine . It does in fact come from a tree – the malabathrum -which belongs to the Laurel or Lauraceae family, as do the true bay/laurel trees (such as the Laurus Nobilis tree grown in the Mediterranean region or other laurel/bay trees like the California Laurel, Turkish Laurel etc.) whose  leaves – true claimants to the term “bay leaf “- are used in western cuisines.

The cinnamomum tamala (malabathrum) tree – grown in both the Himalayas and southern India – is, however, a different genus from that of bay trees, so it is inaccurate to term the leaves of the former as bay leaves.

The malabathrum tree is closely related to the cinnamon tree – they belong to the same genus – and the aroma and the fragrance of tej patta is in fact somewhat reminiscent of cinnamon. This is another way to distinguish between tej patta and bay/laurel leaves – the latter have a fragrance more like pine and lemon. Also, bay – or laurel- leaves are longer and slimmer than tej patta.

Apart from being an important flavoring agent in biryanis and many other meat-based dishes, tej patta is also used in the preparation of a Bhutanese herbal tea called Tsheringma. You can read more about its recipe, and the benefits, here

and here

I was interested to see that apart from tej patta, Tsheringma’s other ingredient are petals of the safflower plant. Since this plant is also the source of a cooking oil known to be heart-healthy, I am inclined to think that there has to be a sound basis to the benefits this tea is said to offer, according to  Bhutanese tradition.

The essential oils from the leaf were used in ancient times in India as well as other parts of the worlds for perfumes as well as for medicinal purposes. First century Greek texts mention these leaves as being a major export of southern Indian kingdoms.

Some research has found the oils to have an antifungal property.  Significantly, this property is not adversely affected by temperature or storage, so the use of tej patta in cooking would not diminish this effect, I guess.

Tej patta leaves are also used as a treatment for colic and diarrhoea.

Different parts of the plant are used in many Ayurvedic preparations.

Here’s where I learnt more about tejpatta



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Garam Masala

The aloo-palak I made for dinner a couple of days ago didn’t quite taste the same, and I am inclined to put that down to the fact that I have been using a commercial/packaged garam masala for a while now, instead of  the home-made version which I ran out of a couple of weeks ago.

I do keep  a packet of store-bought garam masala handy for use when I haven’t yet had the time to grind a fresh batch of this spice mix. But the store-bought variety doesn’t really make the grade, IMO. It lack the  richness/fullness of taste that homemade garam masala adds to curries and subzis, and even after months of sitting in a bottle, the latter retains an aroma and a flavor that the store-bought kind just can’t match, even when fresh.

Recipes for garam masala vary in India by region and indeed from one family to another even in the same part of India.

This is how my mother makes  it and it is one of those important,basic,essential recipes that I want the girls to find here.

Garam Masala (this recipe is also on Garam Masala on Foodista )

Black Cardamom – 50 gms

Green Cardamom, Cinnamon, Cloves, Black Cumin/Caraway seeds – 10 gms each

Cumin seeds, Black pepper corns, Coriander seeds – 125 gms each (the last is optional since most curries are flavored with some coriander powder as well)

Heat a frying pan/wok to a  high temperature. Put in all the spices and roast for 1/2 a minute, stirring every few seconds. Then turn the heat off and

leave the spices in for another minute, turning them over a few times.

Grind everything together to a fairly fine texture and store in an airtight bottle.

This is a very worthwhile task- despite the sneezes it can induce on account of the pepper- because good garam masala makes up the heart of many an Indian curry or subzi, along with the ginger, the garlic, the onions and the tomatoes.

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Choti/Hari Elaichi(Green Cardamom)

Before I started reading about cardamom in general and black cardamom in particular (a spice I use a lot and about which I posted some days back) I did not think much of green cardamom in that I never considered seriously that it might have significant benefits of its own to offer. I thought of it as the lesser variety of cardamom, used primarily for its aromatic flavor, in Indian cuisine-  in desserts such as gajar ka halwa, kheer and in the boiled tea that is drunk across so many parts of the Indian subcontinent. This spice contributes a very pleasant, almost sweet flavor; and my mother therefore even adds it sometimes to the masala that is the base for vegetable dishes such as baigan ka bharta and palak-aloo or palak-paneer, where the vegetable can often lack natural sweetness and in fact can even on occasion be faintly bitter or coarse to taste.

But it turned out that this green variety of cardamom is thought to offer lots of benefits too, and perhaps this is another reason why it is used so widely.

Green Cardamom (botanical name Elettaria Cardamomum) is the common name for the Elettaria genus of the zingiberaceae(ginger) family of plants. The Sanskrit name is Ela (“elaichi” in hindi) , in Arabic it is called al-hayl , and the Persian name is hel. Grown across South and South East Asia,  it is one of the most expensive spices by weight.

Although India is the largest producer of cardamom, only a small share of the Indian production is exported because of the large domestic demand. The main exporting country today of this spice is in fact Guatemala, where cardamom cultivation was introduced less than a century ago and where all the cardamom grown is exported.

It is a common ingredient in baking in north European cuisines, and it is used to flavor coffee and tea in the Middle East. In fact despite its widespread use in South Asia and Iran, 60% of the world production of cardamom is exported to countries in the Middle East and Africa that have people of Arab ethnicity, where apart from its popular use for flavoring coffee it is also added to spice mixtures such as baharat, ras el hanout and berbere.

South East Asian cuisine also uses varieties of cardamom – Siam cardamom and round or Java cardamom – which are related to but distinct from that used in India.

In India’s Ayurvedic system of medicine, this spice is believed to be very effective in the treatment of a range of conditions- most notably congestion, throat ailments , bronchitis, laryngitis, and digestive disorders such as indigestion,heartburn and flatulence, as well as infections of the teeth and gums and skin and urinary complaints.

Apparently cardamom derives its properties from the presence of a powerful phytochemical called cineole in its essential oil.

Laboratory studies on animals have shown extracts from this essential oil to have anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic effects.

Green cardamom, like the black variety, is best stored as pods because the seeds , once exposed to air, lose their flavor quite quickly.

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Bari/Moti Elaichi(Black Cardamom)

Bari elaichi -an important ingredient of garam masala, which in turn is a key spice mix in many curries – is another of those spices that evokes many memories of my parents’ home. I associate this spice with the quintessentially Punjabi rajma; the karha (a concoction of tea and various spices all boiled together) that my mother gave us to drink when any of us had a cold or cough; winter meals of hot paranthas with the most delicious gobhi ki subzi cooked with potatoes or peas or both, to which my mother always added whole pods of badi elaichi ; and the very flavorful and aromatic mutton curry that was my father’s signature dish and which I loved to watch him make, in which the first spice to go in to the oil was always bari elaichi.

Indira seems to have absorbed my fondness for this spice, because she loves to pick out the pods from any curry or subzi I put them in, to suck on. She says she loves the taste !

I make a karha-style tea sometimes, in the winter, when Shri or I have a cold, that involves boiling the water with a couple of cracked black cardamom pods, 3-4 black peppercorns, and some grated ginger. It does wonders to clear the woozy and heavy-headed feeling that can come with a stuffy nose, and sends the most warming sensation coursing down the throat.

Here is some information on the spice, from the sources listed below.

Black cardamom belongs to the Amomum genus of the Zingiberaceae family of plants, with different species that grow across India, China and the other parts of the Himalayan region. The name in Hindi – elaichi – derives from the Sanskrit ela.

Though a very expensive spice, it is a common ingredient in Indian cuisine. Sometimes erroneously described as inferior to green cardamom, it has its own special place in Indian cuisine, as it is used to flavor many curries, vegetables,pulaos and biryanis where it cannot be substituted by the green variety. In fact unlike the latter which is used to flavor many sweet dishes, black cardamom is rarely used in sweet preparations.

Black cardamom is used in Vietnam and by the Chinese too, especially in the cuisine of the Sichuan region.

While native to Asia, these days most of it is grown in Central America with Guatemala the largest exporter in 2007.

Black cardamom has been used in traditional Indian medicine as a cure for obesity, as a digestive, and as a remedy for respiratory problems such as coughs and bronchitis. The variety grown in China,Laos, and Vietnam is also used in traditional medicinal systems of those areas as an antidote for digestive ailments, as a treatment for nausea and vomiting, tooth aches, etc.

This spice is best stored as pods, since the powdered form – though widely available – loses its aroma quite soon once the package is opened.

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Aromatic jeera is a spice that is ubiquitous in Indian cooking.

Not only does it go in to the tempering for many daals and subzis, it is also an important ingredient in such diverse things as tamarind chutney,the delicious summer drink aam ka panna, as a flavoring in many raitas, and of course jal jeera, another very popular summer drink that takes it’s name from this spice.

This spice is used in both it’s seed form as well as ground in to a powder and is therefore sold in both forms too. But I feel that the latter is best made fresh each time some is needed; bottled jeera powder doesn’t pack half as much flavor, IMO.

So whenever a recipe calls for jeera powder, I usually lightly roast some cumin seeds (it is important not to brown the seeds too long/let them burn to black else this ruins the flavor) and then crush them with a rolling pin or in an electric mixer if the quantity is large enough. The resultant aroma is worth the extra effort !!

Cumin -scientific name Cuminum cyminum – is used in diverse cuisines, such as Mexican, Indian and Middle Eastern and belongs to the same plant family (Umbelliferae) as parsley, dill and caraway.

It is native to Egypt and has been cultivated since antiquity in Indian, China, and the Mediterranean region.

The Bible mentions it as a seasoning for soup and bread, and as a currency to pay tithes to priests while the Egyptians used it as an ingredient in the mummification of their pharaohs. In Europe in the Middle Ages, cumin gained popularity as a symbol of love and fidelity. People carried cumin in their pockets when attending wedding ceremonies, and married soldiers took along a loaf of cumin bread baked by their wives when they went to war !

Cumin has been traditionally used due to its cooling effect, and its’ ability to aid digestion. Research does indicate that cumin probably helps stimulate the secretion of pancreatic enzymes, compounds necessary for proper digestion and nutrient assimilation.

Cumin may even have anti-carcinogenic properties, due to its’ potent free radical scavenging abilities as well as the ability to enhance the liver’s detoxification enzymes. In fact, these same properties make cumin an important aid to overall wellness.

A very good source of iron and manganese, cumin is highly regarded in the Ayurvedic system of medicine for it’s varied curative properties. It can apparently help treat skin problems such as boils, psoriasis, eczema and dry skin; it is believed to help purify the blood; to reduce superficial inflammation; to help control flatulence, stomach pain, diarrhoea, nausea; can help alleviate the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome; and is believed to be an antiseptic.

If you come across material – studies/scientific papers -that talk about the benefits of jeera , I’d love to hear about it.

The sources I referenced are:


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Paanch phoron

I am not certain how or why paanch phoran, a classic element of Bengali cuisine, became such a constant feature of the food my mother cooked.

I tend to attribute it to the fact that my father, who was a student in Kharagpur, West bengal in the 1960s acquired a life-long love of Bengali food there, and often asked her to flavor her daals and curries with this spice mixture.

Or it might have been because our family lived from 1964 until 1984 in Bihar. They use this spice mixture in Bihari cuisine too so it may just have been a local influence.

Either way, paanch phoran and its wonderful flavors make up a very special part of my childhood memories of my mother’s table – red masoor or sometimes chana daal tempered with paanch phoran; lauki cooked with tomato and a little milk and flavored with paanch phoran; a sweet and sour tomato chutney tempered with paanch phoran; khichdi made with rice and yellow moong or red masoor daal with paanch phoran in the tempering; rasedaar aloo tamatar flavored with paanch phoran; kadhi tempered with paanch phoran ; the list goes on.

Consequently the five spices that make up this mixture -mustard seeds, nigella seeds, fennel seeds, cumin seeds, and fenugreek seeds – are staples on my spice shelf and I couldn’t bear to run short of any of these !

I have listed these spices in that particular order because that is the sequence in which I put them in the oil.

You could mix equal quantities of the five and keep the mixture ready to use in a bottle. But I prefer not to do that because each spice takes a different amount of time before it’s aroma is released; so I find that sometimes by the time the fennel reaches this point, the fenugreek and the cumin seeds have almost burnt, giving the fenugreek, especially, a very bitter taste.

So what I do is that I  let the oil heat (though not to smoking point), and then first add the mustard and the nigella. Then when the mustard seeds begin to pop, I add the fennel seeds, and let them fry for a few seconds till they start to go a very light brown and to release their aroma. I then add the cumin seeds and let these fry for a few seconds till they begin to brown (without letting them go black which I feel spoils the look and the taste). Finally, I add the fenugreek and fry for just a couple of seconds before adding the ingredient which comes next in the recipe.

This probably takes a little longer than heating the oil to a high temperature and adding all the spices together, but IMO preserves the flavors better.

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The star of the show in a subzi that my mother makes with spring onions, and one of the 5 components of  paanchphoran, an aromatic spice mixture used in Bengali cuisine, kalaunji has a nice mild flavor.

The small black seeds that make up this spice are obtained from the Nigella Sativa plant. Variously referred to as black cumin, black caraway, and black sesame in English (none of those names are accurate, though when a Bengali talks of “kala jeera” she is in fact talking of nigella sativa seeds), they are also sometimes mistakenly defined as onion seeds. One more name- a nice one- for this plant is “love in the mist” !

In India kalaunji is used to flavor breads such as naan, pickles, vegetables, and of course the afore-mentioned paanchphoran.

Like many other spices, this one too has been used since ancient times in many parts of the world for its medicinal properties. In the Middle East it is known as the “Habbatul Barakah’, or the seed of blessing.

The active compounds -nigellone and thymoquinine- in the seeds and the oil have been shown in studies to have antioxidant , anti-inflammatory, anti-allergy, anti-microbial and anti-tumor properties.  Perhaps this is why both the seeds and the oil find use in traditional remedies for the symptoms of a range of diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, stomach ailments and skin conditions such as eczema and dandruff.

Nigella Sativa is a rich source of polyunsaturated fatty acids and protein, and it is also thought to help keep cholesterol and blood sugar levels low. The former may be due the high level of betasitosterol , a common plant sterol, that is present in this plant.

The sources I browsed:

One quite detailed article about nigella sativa which lists all its sources, is here:

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Once again, there isn’t a great deal I was able to find out that would validate the claims made for another spice I use a lot – hing.

Here’s what I did find out.

I was surprised to learn that hing has been called some pretty uncomplimentary names in many languages, usually alluding to the devil: merde du diable (devil’s shit) in French, devil’s dung and stinking gum in English, Dyvelsträck in Swedish, and Seytantersi in Turkish, among others!

I quite like the aroma of this spice (admittedly quite strong) even before it is added to oil or hot water.  So this was news to me, that to so many people the smell of raw hing is not appealing at all. However, the flavor released after hing has been fried in a little bit of oil is described variously as being akin to that of shallots/leeks/garlic, and in fact the spice seems to be used by many – such as those communities in India that do not use onions and garlic in their cooking – for this reason.

The English name for hing -Asoefetidais derived from the Persian word “aza”, which means resin, and the Latin foetidus, for “stinking”.

This spice, reddish brown or yellow in color, is a gum resin obtained from the sap of the giant fennel plant Ferula Asoefetida , of the family Umbelliferae.  The entire plant gets used as a vegetable, and all its parts give off a strong odor, a result of the sulfur compounds that it contains. This plant is native to Iran and Afghanistan, though most of the raw asoefetida from these places is sent to India for further processing. In India this plant is grown in Kashmir.

Commercially available forms of this spice include both hard pieces of the resin, as well as a powder form in which the resin is mixed with rice flour and gum arabic, after being crushed.

Asoefetida, believed to aid digestion, is commonly used in Indian cooking, albeit usually only a pinch at a time, to prevent flatulence. It is also believed to be an effective anti-spasmodic.

In traditional medicine it is often used as an antidote to brochitis,asthma, bronchitis and whooping cough. In earlier times in Europe, it’s strong smell was thought to repel germs, and to help calm episodes of hysteria.

And apparently court singers in the Mughal empire would habitually eat a spoon of asoefetida with butter in the belief that it improved their singing voice.


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This spice is one of my favorites, because the images it evokes most for me are those of the regional Indian cuisine I love best – that of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

So I was a little disappointed when I google-searched to learn about the benefits/properties/effects of this “global” spice.

I suppose what I was looking for was the sort of sources I managed to find aplenty for spices such as turmeric- articles in mainstream news media, and reports of scientific research related to the spice.

I did find some, but if there are others you may have found which you think meet that criterion, do tell me.

In the meanwhile, here is what I have come across.

Mustard seeds can be the product of one of three different kinds of plants; black, brown (Indian), and yellow mustard.

Mustard greens, the seeds and the oil made from them have long been used in Indian and other Asian cuisines. In France, it is  ground mustard that is something of an institution (it is used as an accompaniment to meats). And medieval European courts apparently employed a “mustardarius”, an official who supervised the growing and preparation of mustard !

The mustard plant belongs to the Brassica family of phytonutrient-rich vegetables such as  broccoli ,cauliflower, kale and  cabbage. Therefore everything derived from it – the greens, the seeds, the oil – offers health benefits.

Mustard greens are an excellent source of Vitamins A, C and E, and iron; one cup (140 gm) would provide an adult 60% of the recommended daily Vitamin A requirement, all the Vitamin C requirement and about one-fifth the iron.

Mustard oil is apparently extremely heart and health friendly. It has cholesterol reducing and anti-oxidant properties; it contains essential vitamins; it has saturated fat levels lower even that of olive oil,and high levels of good omega 3 fatty acid and mono-unsaturated fatty acid.

Like the greens, the seeds are also an excellent source of selenium and magnesium, minerals that are helpful in reducing the severity of asthma and in lowering high blood pressure.

In India mustard oil has been used traditionally in the treatment of respiratory conditions ,arthritis and rheumatism.

Mustard seeds also act as a preservative, which is why they are often used in making pickle.

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When I decided to find out more about turmeric, I was sure there would be lots I’d learn.

And wow ! It has certainly made for some pretty impressive reading.

It wouldn’t be wrong, I think,  to call this a wonder spice. The list of real and potential benefits that tradition and even modern research claim for it is very long indeed (though some of these claims, as a few sources are careful to say, are based on clinical trials with animals, with similar effectiveness in humans yet to be conclusively proved) .

Here is a summary of the highlights:

Haldi, a commonly used spice, has been an important element of traditional Indian and Chinese medicine for centuries. It has been used as an antiseptic , to treat respiratory problems, to treat skin diseases, to treat rashes, boils, ulcers and infections. In fact in 1997, India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial research managed to stop a patent being granted to researchers (led by two Indian born scientists) in the U.S., who were working on creating products based on the healing properties of turmeric, by proving that knowledge of the benefits of turmeric has been in the public domain in India for a very long time.

The active/main compound of turmeric is curcumin, a polyphenol that has been found to have anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial qualities. It has been found to be effective in the relief of arthiritic pain, because it alleviates joint inflammation.

Turmeric, which has been the focus of a great deal of research around the world in recent years -to quote one source, two hundred and fifty-six curcumin papers were published in 2004 – is being hailed as a potential cure for a range of health conditions – neurodegenrative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and MS, auto-immune diseases, many kind of cancers, and Type-2 diabetes.

Scientists have noticed for quite long now that prostrate cancer – the second most common cause of death due to cancer – is rare in India. This is attributed to a diet rich in vegetables such as cauliflower, and the use of turmeric in Indian cooking. In laboratory tests, curcumin has been found to inhibit the growth of human prostrate cells implanted in immune-deficient mice.

(The flip side to the potential befit of turmeric for inhibiting cancer cell growth is that recent animal studies indicate that dietary turmeric may inhibit the anti-tumor action of chemotherapeutic agents so it has been suggested, for example, that breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy should  limit intake of turmeric and turmeric-containing foods)

The use of turmeric in Indian food – is also the reason, studies indicate,for the much lower occurrence (one of the lowest rates in the world) of Alzheimer’s among older Indians who are in the age group usually at most risk for this disease.

Research has also shown that curcumin helps lower bad cholesterol, and increases the levels of good cholesterol, in the body. It also helps alleviate the inflammation response in the body caused  by obesity, and could thus help prevent Type-2 diabetes.

If you want more detail on any of this, here are the sources I looked at:,3923,4046|Turmeric,00.html

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Ajwain(Carom seeds)

This is about ajwain, a spice that tends to not get its fair share of mention, IMO.

I have often come across people to whom Indian food is all about the usual suspects – turmeric, chilly powder, “curry” powder (though just as there is no one pan-indian cuisine, there is no one standard curry powder, in actual fact).

But ajwain has a very integral place in most of my Indian cooking, and finds a prominent spot on my spice shelf. I am a firm believer that it helps with digestion – any time you find yourself with this heavy feeling in your stomach, perhaps induced by some gastronomic indulgence, try this old home remedy. Chew just 1/2 a teaspoon of ajwain (if the taste is too strong for you, squeeze a couple of drops of lime juice in to it) , and you’ll be surprised by how quickly you’ll feel some relief.

I therefore use ajwain in many recipes – in curries (especially those made with chickpeas, kidney beans and kala chana) , when cooking vegetables such as cauliflower and potatoes that are said to cause gas to develop in the stomach, and I add it also to the dough for puris and paranthas for the same reason.

Here are a few things I have found about ajwain (sources below):

scientific name – trachyspermum ammi

Ayurveda counts ajwain among the 10 foremost herbs known for their anti-colic or anti-spasmodic action; infant colic is often treated with a poultice of ajwain. It has a stimulant action on the uterus and the digestive and circulatory systems, and can help with asthma and arthritis.

Ajwain seeds contain an essential oil which is about 50% thymol, which is a strong germicide, anti-spasmodic and fungicide.

Ahwain is sometimes used in a steeped liquid form against diarrhea and flatulence.

Research in India has shown that its oil can effectively cure ringworm infections.

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Dhaniya (Coriander)

Whether it is the fresh leaves, the aroma of the seeds as I roast them before grinding a fresh lot of the powder,or the older quantity sitting in a bottle on the spice shelf in our kitchen; Indira loves to sniff at coriander in any of it’s forms. It is quite an amusing sight to see her grab the bottle of coriander powder from my hand, after I have finished adding some to a curry or subzi that is cooking right then, and take a long, appreciative sniff at the contents. And she absolutely loves the trip to the vegetable shop from where I buy fresh coriander and mint, since she knows the fragrance will fill the air in the car on the way back !

So I figured this is the spice I should begin this section with.

here is what I have found out (sources below):

Apparently the plant is of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern origin; the Romans used it for treating digestive problems;it was even mentioned in the old testament.

The leaves are variously referred to as coriander leaves, cilantro ,dhania , Chinese parsley or Mexican parsley.

There is a host of fascinating stuff here about the history of the use of this spice; I am only listing some of the medicinal benefits mentioned.

Thanks to its to its exceptional phytonutrient content, it seems that coriander can help control blood sugar, cholesterol and free radical production; it is a very good source of dietary fiber, minerals such as iron and magnesium, and a very powerful antibacterial compound. It is  effective against colic and indigestion in both adults and children, and apparently coriander oil can help ease joint pain due to it’s anti-inflammatory properties.


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