We hear a lot these days about “healthy cooking,” but exactly what that term means can be hard to understand. Usually we think of heart-friendly dishes as lacking one essential thing that we all love: flavor. That’s because, as westerners, we have learned to associate great taste with high levels of fat and/or sugar. Sadly, when we eat too much of either of those we run into trouble, the kind that shows up on our waistlines.

There are ways to enjoy delicious flavor in foods while still eating light. The secret is spices; those herbal inventions of nature that add layers of delicious taste to any dish. For many Americans, “spice” refers to the salt and pepper shakers at our local greasy spoon diner. In different parts of the globe, spices are as essential to meal preparation as the main ingredients. This is especially true in India, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean, where cooks long ago discovered the power of bold and aromatic spices to liven up what might otherwise be bland, boring dishes.

“All well and good,” you might say, “but I don’t have time to take an international cooking class or spend a lot of time in the kitchen.” Never fear; like learning to swim, mastering the art of using exotic spices can begin simply by dipping one’s toe in the pool. Here’s a quick primer to get you started:

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Curry powder is an essential part of Indian cuisine. Its bold flavor can bring excitement to all sort of recipes. The key is to add it slowly, tasting all the time to see how it matches your palate. Try it in soups to start, then expand to other types of food as you like.

Cumin is a staple part of South American homes, where it works wonders with meat-free dishes based on rice and other bulk foods. You may not think that a plate of cooked beans or peas can be delicious. But try adding cumin and you might find out otherwise.

Ginger is one of the most useful spices – provided you’re careful with how much you use. Added in modest portions, it can bring dishes life roasted vegetables to life. Slice it thin and add small portions at a time, till you find what works for you.

Curry, cumin, and ginger are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to using exotic, aromatic spices in your cooking. There are plenty of recipes on the Internet when you’re ready to expand your use of them, but, for now, try adding them to dishes you already prepare and see how they bring them new zest and flavor. Happy dining!