Health Benefits of Malay Herbs and Spices

Ever wondered what goes into Malaysian food that makes it so unique? As any local will tell you, one trip overseas is enough to have us pining for the flavoursome fare waiting at home. This is not to downgrade food in other countries by any means, but the spices and herbs used in traditional Malay, Chinese, and Indian cooking makes them unforgettable – and quite frankly, incomparable.

The best part is, they not only taste divine but have multiple health benefits too! As it’s Ramadan and soon-to-be Raya season, here are some benefits of common spices you’d find in rendangs, marinades, and curries (to name a few).


Galangal belongs to the same family as ginger, cardamom, and turmeric called (*deep breath) Zingiberaceae. It’s essentially a rhizome, which is a horizontal root that grows underground and produces flowers. Believed to originate from China, this pungent powerhouse has been found to contain anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties, and it also helps ease digestive issues such as vomiting and diarrhea.

Lemongrass or Serai

You’d be all too familiar with the unique citrusy aroma of lemongrass, because when its not being sliced into mee soto or asam laksa, lemongrass is commonly used as a natural fragrance and in aromatherapy. Some health benefits include reduced cholesterol levels, antifungal effects against harmful yeast, and hemoglobin-boosting properties. It can also act as a natural diuretic, which means you’ll need more bathroom breaks to pee, but that’s a good thing to help clean your kidneys.

Tamarind or Asam

An unsung hero behind many world-famous cuisines, tamarind comes from a tropical tree belonging to the family Fabaceae. The tamarind fruit grows in long pods and is widely enjoyed for its unique taste and nutritional benefits. It is anti-inflammatory, great for healing skin issues, improves digestion, and is even known to be beneficial for eye-health.

Screwpine or Pandan

Used in everything from curries to cakes, we owe a lot to the mighty pandan leaf. Cooking it lets off a piquant aroma that adds so much to its taste, and it still has more to offer in terms of health. Pandan has natural pain-relieving properties especially for headaches, and it can also cure constipation naturally, help detoxify your liver, and lower blood sugar levels.

Star Anise

Just like it’s spicy friends, star anise lends a delightful aroma to any dish that it is added to, despite having a curiously bitter taste. It offers a myriad of health benefits such as Vitamins A & C to fight free radicals, it can help improve digestion and alleviate cramps, as well as reduce bloating and ease indigestion. The oil of the star anise flower contains terpineol, thymol, and anethole which can be used to combat common ailments like cough and flu.


These fragrant dried flower buds are originally from the Molucca Islands, or Spice Islands as they are more commonly known. While they are almost ubiquitous in today’s world, they were a highly-prized trade commodity back in ancient times. Along with its unique aroma, cloves offer multiple health benefits which include antifungal, antibacterial, and antiseptic properties, along with being a natural cure for bad breath. When grandma told you to chew on a clove to help with toothache, she knew exactly what she was talking about.


Cumin is plant from the Apiaceae family, and its seeds are famously used as flavouring in many Indian, Malay, African, Latino, and Caribbean cuisines. In India, cumin has long been known to have a cooling effect on the body, which is why it is added to teas and used in jeera pani (cumin water), a refreshing concoction of cumin seeds, mint leaves, sugar, and soda water. It is yet another health powerhouse in the Malaysian spice family, containing manganese, magnesium, iron, calcium, and phosphorus along with vitamins A, C, E, K, & B6, all of which help boost immunity, regulate digestion, and prevent diseases.


Arguably the king of Malaysian spices, you’ll find dried chili in every Malaysian kitchen, even if you don’t find fresh ones. This is because dried chillies have a stronger flavour and pack more of a punch in terms of taste. Rich in vitamin C, its capsaicin content (which is what makes it spicy) is used to treat sensory nerve fibre disorders, reduce arthritic pain, control diabetes, and clear sinus congestion.

We’re looking forward to devouring food with these and many other Malaysian spices that we couldn’t cover here. They bring a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘comfort food’, because it’s comforting to know that they provide so many health benefits in addition to the tastes of Malaysia we love. To those observing Ramadan, we wish you Ramadan Mubarak!

Click here to check out Raya happenings at Ben’s Independent Grocer:

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