Curiosity: food as medicine
Last month, WASN activated a hands-on class at Soho House in NYC with friend + inspiration Dr. Kanchan Koya, a mom and spices expert with a Ph.D. in Biomedicine from Harvard University and training from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition. She blends her training in molecular biology with the ancient wisdom of culinary spices to help people improve their health through food + natural medicine, and most recently published her first book Spice Spice Baby. We sat down with Kanchan to learn more about her powerful work & path:
WASN: Hi Kanchan, let’s kick things off with sharing a bit about your background. Can you share more about your motivation for writing your most recent cookbook, Spice Spice Baby?
KK: I grew up in India for the first 18 years of my life where spices are an integral part of our pantry and ‘pharmacy’. The idea that food and natural ingredients could be potent medicines was therefore, a part of my DNA. Fast forward to my PhD training at Harvard Medical School when my lab began to investigate the anti-cancer properties of turmeric and I truly believe that moment, sub-consciously at least, sparked the birth of Spice Spice Baby. A few years later, after I became a mother and started to focus on my son’s nutrition, I formally launched Spice Spice Baby as a platform to educate the world about spices and their science-backed health benefits. As the blog grew and I sensed a keen interest from my audience, I decided to self-publish the Spice Spice Baby cookbook, which formally established me as an expert on spices and their science-backed magic.
WASN: As a proponent of ‘food as medicine,’ as well as traditional medicine, where do you see the future of medicine?
KK: The best pharmaceutical drugs in the West are derived from nature so the idea that herbs and plants have healing powers is nothing new and indisputable. I sense more people feeling empowered to take responsibility for their own healing and vitality as we have access to more information about the potency of herbs and spices and plants which, when filtered and applied correctly, gives us immense power. I also sense that conventionally trainer doctors are turning to holistic approaches, herbs and plants as additional tools in their tool kits. Modern science is frantically studying ancient claims and often validating them. All of this together makes me feel that integrated, natural approaches are going to become more mainstream and accepted as powerful healing modalities in the near future.
WASN: Can you share a bit about the research studies supporting the medicinal benefits of spices?
KK: There is so much one can share here and my book, Spice Spice Baby takes a deeper dive into this very subject. Some of my favorite spices that display science-backed health benefits are turmeric which has anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, gut-healing, brain health boosting and other properties, cinnamon, which can regulate insulin function and therefore blood sugar, fennel which is a powerful healer of the digestive tract and star anise which is actually the starting point in the synthesis of Tamiflu, our most potent anti-viral drug. That’s why I always add star anise to my spiced chai in flu season. The list is long but those are some of my favorites.
WASN: What are a few easy and effective ways to incorporate spices into our lives?
KK: I like to encourage people to cook with spices every single day because that maximizes your exposure to their healing properties and makes food extra delicious! People often think that cooking with spices implies cooking a complicated, exotic dish but in reality, you can spice up your daily favorites. Some simple examples are turmeric on popcorn, cardamom in your oatmeal, sumac on oven roasted salmon, coriander on chicken, cumin with lentils, and cinnamon in your hot chocolate (use true or Ceylon cinnamon for its low liver toxin content). Basically, spices all day everyday as far as I’m concerned!
WASN: What are some of your favorite spices and why?
KK: Honestly, this is not a cop out but I love them all for different reasons. That said, there are a handful that I literally use every single day! Turmeric is incredibly versatile and has a plethora of health benefits so I use it all the time (combine with black pepper and a fat source to maximize the absorption of its bioactive compound, curcumin). Cardamom makes everything taste luxurious and delicious so I love using it in smoothies, pancakes, rice, banana bread and even coffee! Cinnamon gets sprinkled onto fresh fruit to keep that blood sugar spike in check and works beautifully in savory dishes too like my Moroccan Lentil Soup. I’m also completely obsessed with sumac which adds lemony, fruity notes and the most gorgeous color to dishes not to mention mega anti-oxidants.
WASN: Can you share a bit about the process of writing a book?
KK: I wrote my cookbook when my younger child was 4 months old and honestly, it seemed wild and insane and such bad timing. But there was an inner knowing and calling that said I just had to create this book and that’s what propelled me despite the odds. I crowdfunded the book which helped me show up and do the work because I had so many backers I didn’t want to disappoint. Overall, writing a book seems impossible until it’s done but if you show up despite the resistance and just write every single day, it will come to fruition and be one of the most rewarding things you will ever do.
WASN: For our entrepreneurs, how did you go from Harvard scientist to entrepreneur and writer?
KK: I had to overcome massive amounts of internal resistance, fear of being judged as a sell out by my scientist peers, fear of throwing away my PhD and ‘wasting it’, fear fear fear. But once I leaned in and listened to an inner calling that said loud and clear that I wanted to be at the intersection of food and health and educate and inspire people to feel their best in body and mind, the fear became background noise and I was able to move forward despite it.
WASN: What are some tools, experiences or words of wisdom you can offer our community?
KK: As Steven Pressfield says in his incredible and powerful book, The War Of Art, accept the fact that whenever you are called to do or create something that you know deep down is going to help your being evolve, expect resistance. And show up and do the work anyway! Resistance means you’re on the right track and you are doing what you are here to do.
WASN: Where can we keep up with you and what can we expect from you next?
KK: I am very active on Instagram @chiefspicemama and also share spice inspiration at www.spicespicebaby.com I recently launched a podcast, MOMLIGHT, that focuses on health and wellness for busy and tired mamas. I am working with women as a health coach through various Momlight digital offerings to help them feel their best in body mind and spirit using cutting edge science, ancient wisdom and spices, of course ;-) As for what to expect next, most likely another book with health boosting recipes and lifestyle as medicine tips.
WASN: Lastly, what's filling you up in life right now?
KK: Connection. Investing in connecting with my inner light and my inner wisdom. Connecting deeply with those around me - my kids, husband, parents, friends, strangers, social media community and so on. When I am focused on true and deep connection (not hyper connectivity via my smart phone), I am full. It does take work in today’s distracted world but I take that work very seriously.