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Spice Guys

Spicy food has lots of benefits for hulking humans. That's just one reason grown-ups acquire a taste not only for gin but also dark coffee and Tabasco sauce. The plants we think of as aromatic, that we use to liven up our dinners, contain volatile oils and chemical compounds. Those oils and compounds are "interesting," we say, "exotic." They tickle our taste buds. They spur our appetites. They're not quite so sexy if you're a smaller mammal or an insect, however, say a caterpillar or a rabbit, for whom chewing on a jalapeño is like eating a poison ivy salad: if it doesn't kill you outright, it'll at least make you uncomfortable enough that on your next garden foray you'll recall that you prefer romaine heads to habaneros, carrots to curry leaves. So cinnamon and pepper plants are well defended from all pests but one. They don't call us omnivores for nothing.

And when the thermometer goes way up? A Caribbean or Indian curry makes us, as Southern ladies like to say, "perspire." Which keeps us cool. Volatile oils in herbs like cilantro, thyme, and pepper also have antibacterial properties; witches, midwives, and family doctors have used them to soothe everything from canker to cancer. Turmeric and ginger are touted as arthritis remedies and help prevent Alzheimer's we're told (although those claims have not been evaluated by the FDA). Eat a couple of cloves of garlic a week and you might disrupt the metabolism of any tumors you happen to be harboring: The National Institute of Health tells us the stinking rose is a terrific immune system booster. Cinnamon has been found to reduce blood sugar, which is good news for diabetics. Cardamom helps you digest your lunch and makes your breath smell good. Cumin soothes a stuffy nose. Nutmeg puts the insomniac to sleep, or wakes a drowsy libido (it mimics the effects of Viagra); just don't eat too much of it, or you and your boner will be taking a magical mystery tour, since a few teaspoons of nutmeg will make you hallucinate like old Tim Leary.

And here's another piece of advice from a girl who's eaten her share of restaurant swill and paid her dues in tummy turmoils. Listen up, intrepid foodies, you swaggering braggarts sussing out the rarest slop from the filthiest roadside carts, you blustering swains with your tales of homemade goat's-head cheese and swine-bristle soup: The hotter the tamale, the less likely you are to spend the evening hugging a toilet bowl. Pepper, oregano, cloves, nutmeg, cilantro, and other hot stuff keep food from spoiling and can considerably lessen the likelihood that you'll end up flowing freely from both ends.

So next time your waiter asks, "mild, medium, or hot?" go for the gold, my friends. Tell him "eight;" tell him "ten." You'll eventually get used to the effects of capsaicin, the compound that puts the punch in paprika and the burn in burrito; the more you eat, the longer you'll live to love it. In Europe during the Middle Ages, pepper was so valuable you could pay your rent or your soldiers with it. An 1884 article in the New York Times reminds us that the landholding of Finchley, in Middlesex, England, was rented annually for a pound of peppercorns. There's an evolutionary reason why cultures in warm climates without working refrigerators have revered chilies and black pepper for centuries.

None of this is to imply in the slightest that you need suffer a moment's hesitation about the South and North Indian fare served at The India Palace. This three-year-old restaurant on Okeechobee Boulevard is wedged between a boutique selling saris and a grocery store purveying all the ingredients you'll need to replicate the Palace's menu at home. The only health dilemma you're likely to face at this wonderful, family-run eatery is the question of how many pounds you can afford to put on. Having tasted practically everything on their menu over a period of three weeks, I can attest that my digestion remains in excellent fettle. If I've been made at all miserable, it's been an existential sort of pain: for example, I wonder whether life without the Palace's palak paneer is really worth living. And there have been relationship snafus since my significant other and I discovered the place. Harsh words have been exchanged over the question of who got up at 3 a.m. and polished off the last of the aloo paratha and chicken tikka. We're going to have to hire a therapist to sort out our boundary issues, such as the question of when it becomes necessary to share a single leftover tandoori shrimp with your spouse.

In the time it takes to complete one lunar cycle, we've become contentious Palace regulars. Why can't all food taste this good? If a single family can turn out seven different kinds of bread, each more pillowy, buttery, fragrant, and delicately spiced than the one you ate here last week, or yesterday, or two minutes ago, what the hell is going on at other restaurants with their pre-frozen dinner rolls and stale crackers? The puri, chapati, roti, and naan at India Palace ($2.99 each, or $5.99 for a mixed basket) is made daily with their clay ovens and griddles, and they are very generous with the stuff. It soaks up those creamy, cashew- and yogurt-infused sauces around your chicken, lamb, or fish to make what must be the world's most perfect meal.

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Gail Shepherd
Contact: Gail Shepherd

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