Health Benefits of 7 Herbs and Spices Used in Southeast Asian Cooking

Ginger brew and lemongrass tea are good for your health

Western science teaches us that everything we put in our mouth and ingest has an effect on our health. That caffeine stimulates the nervous system, that apple juice can combat diarrhea and that prunes can fix constipation are just a few of them. In the West, these are known as home remedies.

That the human body is predisposed to respond to certain foods in a particular way has to do with the nutrients, minerals, and chemicals naturally found in these foods and how our body reacts to them.

And it...MORE is in the same context that herbs and spices have been part of traditional medicine in Asia for millennia. If strong coffee can keep one awake, ginger brew can soothe a sore throat. If prunes can help ease constipation, turmeric has the same effect on the digestive system.

In the West, however, a line is drawn between home remedies and medicine. While home remedies like apple juice for diarrhea are considered good first aid choices, Western people are taught that there is no substitute for doctor-prescribed drugs. 

That the herbs and spices that make up what the West calls "traditional" or "alternative" medicine can take the place of drugs manufactured by pharmaceutical companies are a relatively new concept in the West. There is a lot of concern about the need for scientific studies to prove, in unequivocal terms, that leaves, roots, and seeds can be just as effective as Western drugs in preventing and treating simple ailments like indigestion to more serious concerns like cancer and diabetes.

Such studies have rarely been demanded in non-Western cultures where herbal medicine has been accepted and practiced for thousands of years. Let's take a peek at some of these herbs, roots, and spices — all staples in Southeast Asian cuisines — and how their medicinal and health uses in non-Western cultures have piqued Western scientists sufficiently to spawn a slew of research and studies.

  • 01 of 07


    Ginger and lemon infusion
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    Ginger is a common ingredient in Southeast Asian cooking. It gives off a pleasant fragrance and mild heat. A rhizome, ginger is a usual addition to spice pastes, soups, and dipping sauces. 

    In folk medicine, brewed ginger drink is given to relieve symptoms of colds and cough like stuffy nose and itchy throat. 

    To make the ginger brew, thinly slice young ginger and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Allow it to steep for another 20 minutes. Pour into a mug, add honey or sugar and, optionally, a spritz of...MORE lemon, lime or kalamansi juice. 

    Beyond folk medicine, ginger has been the subject of the following studies:

    To reap the health benefits of ginger, make it a part of your daily cooking repertoire. Here are some recipes where ginger figures prominently:

    1. Chicken Tinola (Gingered Chicken and Green Papaya Soup)
    2. Vietnamese Pork Bone and Green Papaya Soup (Canh Du Du)
    3. Steamed Whole Fish With Ginger and Scallions
    4. Ginger Vinaigrette
  • 02 of 07

    Star Anise

    Star anise
    Natalia Ganelin / Moment / Getty Images

    Not to be confused with anise or aniseed (Pimpinella anisum), star anise is Illicium verum. It is one of the ingredients in the Chinese five-spice powder and one of the spices that flavor the broth of Vietnamese beef pho. The licorice-like flavor is sweet, herby and earthy all at the same time. In fact, it is the complex flavor of star anise that makes it so versatile. It enhances the flavor meat, it is a welcome addition to sweet dishes including gingerbread and apple pie.

    Star anise is the...MORE major source of shikimic acid used in the manufacture of Tamiflu, the anti-influenza drug. However, there is no evidence that ingesting star anise in its raw for the relief of flu symptoms benefits the human body in the same way.

    There are claims that star anise has antibacterial and anti-fungal properties as well as being rich in anti-oxidants but there are, so far, no conclusive Western studies to prove any of these claims.

    If you haven't experienced star anise, try dropping a pod or two into your cup of hot tea. Leave to infuse for a few minutes to allow the spice to release its essential oils. 

    Or, you can cook one or all of these dishes to familiarize yourself with the flavors and aromas of star anise:

    1. Bak Kuh Teh (Malaysian Pork Bone Tea)
    2. Sugar Syrup for Sticky Rice Balls
    3. Bo Kho, Vietnamese Beef Stew

    WARNING: Star anise should not be confused with Japanese star anise (Illicium anisatum) which is toxic to humans.

  • 03 of 07


    Fresh and powdered turmeric
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    The current toast of health buffs, turmeric (or yellow ginger, as it is sometimes called) can allegedly cure diabetes and even prevent cancer, according to its extreme proponents. While it has been proven that turmeric is imbued with health benefits, it is by no means a cure-all for any and all ailments. 

    As a treatment for (dyspeptia) indigestion, turmeric works statistically better than a placebo.

    Turmeric can relieve joint pains and act as a memory booster to patients with Alzheimer's...MORE disease.

    Among patients who have undergone bypass, turmeric appears to be effective in preventing heart attacks.

    But, as far as Western scientific studies go, it is still very early to conclude that turmeric can cure or prevent diabetes and cancer.

    For those who want to take turmeric as a health supplement, simply peel, grate and press fresh turmeric to extract the juice. Some people drink is a tablespoonful of pure fresh turmeric juice directly; others mix it with water and add honey. Those with no access to fresh turmeric substitute turmeric powder.

  • 04 of 07


    Westend61 / Getty Images

    Before turmeric became all the rage, lemongrass was touted as the miracle herb that could cure just about anything from indigestion to the prevention diabetes, heart ailment, and cancer.

    The claims are based mainly on the anti-oxidant, anti-microbial and anti-bacterial properties of lemongrass. 

    In Ayurvedic medicine, lemongrass is used as a diuretic to release toxins from the body, as a relaxant to calm the nerves and as an analgesic to bring the fever down.

    As with the case of turmeric, there are...MORE no conclusive Western studies to show that lemongrass can cure or prevent diabetes and cancer.

    As with most herbs replete with minerals and nutrients, the best way to benefit from lemongrass is to take it in its natural form. Add a few stalks to a pot of soup, stew or congee. Mince, grind or finely slice lemongrass to flavor meat

    Lemongrass can be used to make hot and cold drinks. Boil lemongrass stalks to make a brew and use it as a base for making hot or cold beverages.

    Continue to 5 of 7 below.
  • 05 of 07


    Flavia Morlachetti / Moment / Getty Images

    The magically fragrant and earthy stuff that delicious pasta and pizza sauces are made of, oregano is a perennial herb with several cultivars that vary in flavor and intensity. In cooking, fresh oregano leaves may be added to sauces and stews but dried oregano has more concentrated flavors.

    In Filipino folk medicine, the juice extracted by pressing oregano leaves is believed to be a highly effective cure for coughs, colds, bronchitis and other respiratory ailments.

    The high levels of antioxidants...MORE found in dried oregano make regular consumption of oregano a great boost to the immune system. 

    Some recipes that count oregano among its ingredients:

    1. Filipino Menudo, a Pork, and Liver Stew
    2. Filipino Morcon: Stuffed and Rolled Beef
    3. Marbled Egg Sarciado
  • 06 of 07

    Coriander Seeds and Leaves

    Coriander seeds and leaves
    DR NEIL OVERY / Science Photo Library / Getty Images and JGI/Jamie Grill / Blend Images / Getty Images

    Every part of the coriander plant is edible but the parts most commonly used in cooking are the leaves and the spice we know as coriander seeds which are, in fact, the dried fruits of the plant. Coriander seeds are included in many spice bases in Southeast Asia (see beef rendang recipe); the leaves are a staple in Vietnamese dishes like pho, bun bo xao and a host of salads.

    Coriander leaves (also called cilantro) are packed with vitamins and minerals including Vitamin C, Vitamin A, calcium,...MORE potassium, and magnesium. Cut coriander leaves, however, don't last very long even in the fridge.

    The seeds which can be stored for as long as two years carry the same mix of vitamins and minerals but in lesser amounts.

    If you want to keep a fresh supply of coriander leaves (for their nutritional value or simply because you love them!), it is easy to grow them from seeds. Soak cilantro seeds overnight then drop into a pot the next day. Cover loosely with about an inch of soil. Keep the pot in a shady part of the yard as coriander hates the heat. Water regularly and generously but do not inundate. You'll have coriander leaves to harvest in about six weeks. 

  • 07 of 07


    Holy basil
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    In a study published in 2008, author James A. (Jim) Duke, Ph.D. of the U.S. Department of Agriculture cites a study about three newly identified phytochemical components in Holy Basil that fights stress as effectively as the antidepressant drug desipramine.

    Meanwhile, earlier studies show that basil oil is rich in antioxidant, antimicrobial and antiviral properties which make it a potential cancer treatment. 

    See some recipes with basil:

    1. Ayam Woku (Manadoan Spicy Basil Chicken)
    2. Cambodian Beef Salad...MORE in Spicy Lime Dressing
    3. Vietnamese Pomelo and Shrimp Salad
    4. Crispy Pork Belly Noodles
    5. Vietnamese Chicken Salad With Spicy Fish Sauce Dressing