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Like everyone else, I’ve heard the drill too. Vegetables are healthy. Regular portions of deep-fried food aren’t. And subbing out red meat for fatty fish such as salmon reduces dietary inflammation and lowers your risks of heart disease, cancer and arthritis — while providing beneficial doses of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and bone-boosting vitamin D. 

Trying to remember all that while readying dinner after a long day at the office could well prompt you to bin everything and dial a delivery. It certainly had that effect on me — until last week, when I marinated some fillets of flash-frozen Ikea salmon in lemon juice, salt and dried chilli flakes that I’d picked up on a wander through the spice souk. An hour later, I pan-fried it and served it with cinnamon-roasted cauliflower and olive oil-drizzled roast potatoes. Even fish-hating family members wanted me to cook it again. 

Here’s a secret: Simple items in your kitchen cupboard can make your food sing. A dash of this, a little of that and anything becomes interesting — even without creamy, calorie-laden sauces. Living in a region where the spice trade was born, there’s no excuse not to know the difference between zaatar and sumac.

“There are numerous ingredients in our kitchen counters that can add some much needed flavour to the food and also provide nutritional benefits,” says Dr Wafaa Ayesh, Director of the Clinical Nutrition Department at Dubai Health Authority. Together with nutritionist Maya Kobeissi (pictured), Director of Nutrition Programmes at the Integrated Rheumatology and Arthritis Centre in Dubai, she recommends several ways to incorporate some of the region’s biggest flavours in your food and transform the way you eat. 

In many ways, 2019 looks set to be the year we return to flavour, so skip the sauces and steal a march on everyone else with our handy guide. Sometimes, a little really does go a long way.

Extra virgin olive oil

Make EVOO your friend. Healthy fats have come in from the cold in recent years, and olive oil is a top source, along with avocado, chia seeds and nuts of all kinds. “Every house should have a bottle of extra virgin olive oil,” says Kobeissi. “Olive oil is rich with mono- and polyunsaturated fats and these are considered healthy fats.” 

How to eat it She recommends using the ingredient when cooking dishes that do not for require very high levels of heat. It’s ideal for pan frying or in pastas, and is best in salads or on bread. “It adds a nice finish to any dish,” says Kobeissi. 

Zaatar 

Both a fresh herb and a seasoning mix, zaatar is a health and culinary essential across the Levant. In its dried form, the mixture varies in composition according to its country and community of origin. It usually comprises a mixture of ground dried wild thyme, oregano, marjoram, toasted sesame seeds and salt. It may often contain sumac, but watch out for commercial varieties bulked up by roasted flour. 

“Due to the combination of herbs and spices present in zaatar, it has some truly impressive health benefits, including its ability to improve the immune system, boost skin and bone health, increase circulation, soothe inflammation, boost energy, improve mood and aid memory,” explains Dr Wafaa.

How to eat it Sprinkled on manakish, as a dip mixed into olive oil, as a rub for grilled chicken, or in place of other herbs in a hearty stew. 

Turmeric

The Indian store cupboard staple is having a bit of a moment, with turmeric lattes showing no sign of dissipating. However, turmeric is also widely known for its antiseptic and brain-boosting benefits. “Turmeric contains compounds called curcuminoids, the most important of which is curcumin,” says Dr Wafaa. “Curcumin is the main active ingredient in turmeric and has powerful anti-inflammatory properties and is a strong antioxidant.”

How to eat it Dr Wafaa recommends using ground turmeric in meat and vegetable recipes, where it adds an earthy flavour and that characteristic yellow colour. Or whip up your own turmeric latte instead and make an Asian grandma happy.

Dried chilli flakes

The easiest way to add flavour to any recipe without raising its calorie quotient is with a pinch of bright red Aleppo chilli flakes, Kobeissi says. Rich in capsaicin, which block inflammation and slow the growth of prostate cancer cells, chillies also contain antioxidants, including vitamin C and carotenoids, which have been linked to insulin regulation. They’re also quickly earning a reputation as weight-loss wonders: researchers have found that they suppress the appetite and boost the body’s metabolism.

How to eat it With caution — but not too much. Crushed and dried chilli flakes, particularly those made from cayenne peppers, are a good place to start. Stir them into a tomato or sweet potato soup, use them to perk up a salad dressing or an egg scramble, or to add warmth to stews.

Sumac

Relatively unknown outside the Middle East until recently, sumac has a fresh, lemony flavour that brightens up even the most tired dish. Made from the powdered berries of a tree in the cashew family, sumac is a powerful antioxidant, says Kobeissi. Iranian researchers have also reported a range of health benefits in diabetes patients, as well as a range of improvements in cholesterol and blood glucose.

How to eat it “Sumac has a tangy, citrusy taste that goes well with salads, meat, potatoes, fish and as a garnish,” Kobeissi says. Add it to yoghurt or hummus and use it to season baked sweet potato chips.