Eating well is about food and health, but equally also celebration and community. There is a world of flavor, and the passport is spices. I connected my lifelong love of food and cooking to my work as a physician eight years ago, when I attended a medical conference that transformed the way I practice medicine, after a decade as a primary care physician. At that time, I was feeling burned out. I knew that I was helping my patients, but I didn’t feel that I was making an impact in the way I really wanted. Despite my support and advice, my patients struggled to lose weight, to control their cholesterol and blood pressure and blood sugar, and they were tired, anxious, and depressed. I wrote many prescriptions, for cholesterol medications, for blood pressure medications, for diabetes medications, and for antidepressants and sleep aids. My patients didn’t feel better, and I felt ineffectual.
Then, I attended Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives, cosponsored by Harvard School of Public Health and the Culinary Institute of America. We reviewed the latest updates in nutrition science and were also taught to cook incredibly delicious food that was also health-supportive, by the culinary school’s chef-instructors.
That conference was my lightbulb moment.
My practice changed immediately: Before, at the end of routine physical examinations, I would review my findings with the patient, discuss their weight, blood pressure and lab results, and make some vague suggestions for modifying their diet and exercise routine. Typically, it might have ended there. But after my epiphany, with my next patient, I pulled out my prescription pad—and wrote a recipe for kale chips. A week after the conference ended, I taught my first cooking class to patients, and I was hooked. I began teaching cooking classes on a regular basis, and felt as exhilarated as my students were. I shifted my practice to include culinary medicine, a new evidence-based field that blends the art of food and cooking with the science of medicine. I did this to address some dismal statistics: About 75 percent of visits are due to lifestyle-related conditions. Half of premature deaths are attributable to our overfed, yet malnourished, society. Only 10 percent of Americans meet dietary guidelines. Practicing culinary medicine is a low-cost, accessible, and culturally adaptable intervention.
A few years after I began to teach cooking, I attended culinary school and earned a certificate in plant-based nutrition, after which I founded a formal cooking program for patients, medical students, and residents.
While this path is nontraditional, it reinvigorated my joy in my career, but equally important, allowed me to help patients in a way I had previously been unable to do. Whether patients take a hands-on cooking class with me or simply accept my offer of a recipe, they are surprised, grateful, and inspired. They tell me that I have changed their life. It might mean reversing diabetes, going off blood pressure medications, or avoiding weight-loss surgery. At the least, eating better makes people feel better. Helping people find their way on this path is my mission, and a joy.
The best way I have found to make transitioning to eating more healthfully a joy is to bring in flavors from around the world. My food influences have always been global and wide-ranging, and I love the adventures you can have in your own kitchen just by exploring different spices. What I cook and what I teach in my cooking classes are recipes inspired by the people I have met from around the world. I grew up with parents from Taiwan, lived in Singapore for a year in college, and married a man from Trinidad. No matter where I am cooking, I rely on spices to capture the flavors of a particular cuisine. I like to think of a spicebox as the cook’s equivalent of a doctor’s bag—containing the essential tools to use in the art of cooking. Learning to use spices is the best way to add interest and vibrancy to simple home cooking. As our first medicine, spices also play a role in our health and wellness.
This cookbook shares my love for flavors from around the world from my unique perspective and nutrition knowledge as a physician and professionally trained chef. Whereas most “healthy cookbooks” focus on nutrition over flavor, these recipes celebrate eating for pleasure. At my table, food is meant to be savored. I won’t prescribe you a diet, advise you to count calories, or tell you what to eat. I believe that our food choices should be personal; the best diet for one person may not be the best for another. I do recommend that everyone eat “mostly plants,” for many reasons, including taste, variety, the environment, ethical concerns, and yes, health. My goal as a physician is to improve patients’ health by inspiring them to cook more and eat more vegetables. My goal as a cooking instructor and recipe developer is to get people to love and crave vegetables by showing them the many ways to prepare them, deliciously. While this book celebrates vegetables and the recipes that follow are mostly plant-based, I have also included recipes with seafood, eggs, or dairy when those ingredients are essential to the recipe. This approach reflects the “mostly plants” omnivorous diet I follow and that I recommend to my patients and students. I am confident that eaters of all types will find much to enjoy in these recipes. In fact, I can’t tell you the number of times a self-declared carnivorous student finishes their meal with gusto and surprise and says, “I don’t miss the meat at all!”
While I teach people to eat more healthfully and deliciously, really, it’s a party, and a means of building community. After all, a great way to spread happiness and build bridges is to cook for others. Even if you can’t join me in person for one of my cooking classes, you can recreate the experience in your own kitchen with this cookbook.
Linda Shiue is an internal medicine physician and chef and can be reached on Twitter @spiceboxtravels. She is the author of Spicebox Kitchen: Eat Well and Be Healthy with Globally Inspired, Vegetable-Forward Recipes.
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