This month we sit down with Kanchan Koya, founder of Spice Spice Baby, an online platform dedicated to sharing the health benefits of spices and making those benefits accessible through easy to follow and delicious recipes.
Thank you very much for taking the time to sit down with us, we focus on the culinary side of spices, so it’s nice to hear from someone who can speak to the nutritional side. You have a background in Molecular Biology, how did this inform the approach that you took to cooking and nutrition? What is something you discovered that surprised and delighted you?
During my PhD in molecular cancer biology, I learned first hand that our bodies have an innate capacity to heal and repair themselves if we just provide them with the right nourishment. It’s truly not rocket science. The evidence tells us that if we eat whole, unprocessed foods and limit the ‘junk’, our bodies will take care of the rest (good quality sleep, movement, and social interaction help too!). So my approach to cooking and nutrition is quite simple – loads of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, good fats like olive oil, wild-caught fish, pasture-raised, high quality meats, and so on. And of course, SPICES, thanks to their wide ranging benefits like blood sugar control, anti-inflammatory effects, anti-oxidant powers, brain health-boosting properties, and so on and so forth – are powerful tools to aid these natural healing processes, while also serving as mega flavour-enhancers! So they go into pretty much every meal I whip up.
What has surprised and delighted me is how genuinely delicious healthy food can be! I don’t believe in banning the ‘junk’ foods so we do enjoy them on occasion in a celebratory and unapologetic way, but what is quite fascinating is how eating a real, unprocessed food-based diet literally changes your preferences so you crave less of those ‘treat’ foods. It’s truly a lifestyle of abundance rather than deprivation.
I love that you draw distinction between spicy and hot, something we’ve always done at La Boîte. Do you have a few favorite spices that you always find yourself reaching for, and why?
Yes, one of the biggest misconceptions is that all spices are hot and therefore inappropriate for sensitive palates, especially children. In fact, as you well know, most spices are not hot at all but, depending on the spice, infused with sweet, citrusy, bitter, earthy, and other wonderful notes.
When cooking for my family, I find myself reaching for cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg whenever I make sweeter recipes like pancakes, breads, muffins, smoothies, cookies, porridge, or sweet vegetables like sweet potatoes and butternut squash. Cinnamon is just fantastic for balancing blood sugar. I mostly use Ceylon cinnamon for its low coumarin (liver-toxin) content though, on occasion, I will use the stronger Cassia variety for meat curries. I think kids are naturally drawn to sweet flavours and these aforementioned spices lend sweet and luxurious attributes to dishes without refined sugar.
When doing savory dishes, turmeric, sweet and smoked paprika, cumin, coriander, and sumac are my favorites. In addition to being good for digestion and unwanted inflammation, I find they work with many different family-friendly ingredients and are mild enough to be pleasing to all ages. My 15 month old daughter will only eat baked sweet potato fries with sumac or La Boite’s Yemen blend, never plain! Kids learn to love what they are exposed to so I urge all parents to keep exposing their little ones to a wide variety of spices and flavors. Eventually (some take longer than others), they will bite!
It’s wonderful that you’re able to draw on spice rich Indian traditions and recipes. Aside from purchasing your book of course, what would you recommend to someone who wants to start incorporating spices into their daily meals.
Don’t be under the impression that you have to cook an elaborate, ethnic dish to enjoy the magic of spices. Cinnamon or nutmeg in your morning oats, cardamom in pancakes, turmeric in scrambled eggs, crushed coriander seeds and garlic on a chicken breast, Chinese 5 spice on salmon, sumac on roasted cauliflower – I could go on and on – and you see right away that the recipes are simple, family-friendly, and easy to execute on busy weeknights. I urge people to be playful and experiment with new combinations. The rules are wonderful starting points but it’s more fun when you break them! A spinach and basil pesto with coriander and sweet paprika may sound very odd but it turned out to be a delicious combination and is now a recipe in the cookbook.
Do you have a couple spicy recipes you’d like to share with us?
Yes! Sweet Paprika Fish with Tomato Tarragon Chutney and Cinnamon and Cardamom Healthy Banana Oat Chia Muffins are always a hit with my family and guests and are healthy to boot!
One of your emphases as a parent is incorporating spices into food for children, especially since there isn’t really a historical precedent for separate children’s food or menus. What is your advice for new parents who’d like to spice up the food of their children?
The new rule for feeding babies and kids is that there are no rules (except for honey, which shouldn’t be offered to babies under 12 months). I recommend working towards feeding babies and kids what you yourself eat even if you have to puree it to make it smoother for younger babies (though some will surprise you with their love for textured foods!). Remember that babies don’t like bland food, they like what they are exposed to on a regular basis. As far as spices go, start with aromatic ones – cardamom, cinnamon, sweet paprika, turmeric, coriander, and sumac are well liked by palates of all ages. Some of my favorite first foods for babies incorporating spices are pears and banana with cardamom, mashed potatoes with sweet paprika, carrots and peas with turmeric and cumin, sweet potatoes with cinnamon, and eggs with sumac. Once these simple, first foods are well established, you can quickly move to more complex combinations and essentially one family meal for all. And most importantly, don’t be disheartened by rejection – it can take 10 or more exposures for a child to accept a new food. And just putting the food on baby’s plate, even if they don’t touch it, counts as an exposure!
Thank you very much! Any exciting projects on the horizon?
In addition to spreading the word on the Spice Spice Baby cookbook and getting it into more hands around the world, I am working on a second cookbook that uses spices and food as medicine, particularly for anxiety, depression, and childhood obesity, all heartbreakingly on the rise. I am also creating a health coaching online program focused on postpartum mothers who are struggling to regain their vitality. The multi-pronged recommendations in the program will most definitely include some delicious spiced delights!
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