Culinary Medicine: Treat Your SpiceBox Like the Doctor’s Bag of the Kitchen

Doctor's orders.

By: Jessica Ourisman
Culinary Medicine: Treat Your SpiceBox Like the Doctor’s Bag of the Kitchen

Linda Shiue, MD and chef, considers herself to have been born with a tasting spoon in her mouth. “I’ve truly loved eating and been curious about trying all different kinds of food since birth,” she says, explaining that her first cooking class was at the age of seven, which gave her the opportunity early on to expand her palate to encompass the intricacies of global cuisines and culinary traditions.

But her journey from physician to culinary medicine practitioner and cookbook author — integrating cooking classes to help her patients learn to support their health outcomes with their diets — was less straightforward. “It took me a long time to realize that I wanted to incorporate food into my career. It was after a decade of practicing primary care medicine that I finally connected my lifelong love of food and cooking to my work as a physician.”

At that point, she was feeling the symptoms of burn-out; aware that she was helping to improve patients’ quality of life, but not fully satisfied with the impact she was making on their lives. She explains that statistics indicate that 75% of doctor’s visits are due to lifestyle-related factors — particular health woes that could be addressed with consciously-selected, health-supportive behaviors — and that only 10% of Americans meet recommended dietary guidelines.

Infusing her passion for health-promoting foods into her work with patients, Dr. Shiue got to work rē•spinning the conventional treatment model into integrative work with patients, inspired by the healing properties of spices.

Culinary Medicine: Dr. Shiue’s Turning Point

“I went to a medical conference called Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives, cosponsored by Harvard School of Public Health and the Culinary Institute of America,” Dr. Shiue says. The conference reviewed the latest research in nutrition science and explored ways to connect these findings to physicians’ work with patients. “We were taught to cook incredibly delicious food that was health-supportive. That conference was my lightbulb moment; my practice changed immediately.”

This form of continuing education inspired her new model of work with patients, in which she first conducted the conventional physical examination, lab reviews, and provided her typical medical suggestions — including diet and exercise — to help improve their health prognoses. But what came next was brand new: “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.”

Dr. Shiue took a sabbatical to attend San Francisco Cooking School to become certified in Plant-Based Nutrition. When she returned to her practice, she incorporated culinary medicine — an evidence-based field that blends the art of food and cooking with the science of medicine. This is when her integrative practice was born, and she began to rē-think the role of spices and their medicinal properties in our everyday health. Eventually, she wrote Spicebox Kitchen: Eat Well and Be Healthy with Globally Inspired, Vegetable-Forward Recipes, a collection of recipes that proves “healthy eating” does not have to scrimp on flavor or enjoyment.

Spicebox or Doctor’s Bag? The Secret Medicine in Spices

Dr. Shiue’s professional journey emphasizes one of humankind’s original medicines: spices. “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,” she says. “Learning to use spices is the best way to add interest and vibrancy to your simple home cooking. As our first medicine, spices also play a role in our health and wellness. I first became aware of spices when I learned about Ayurveda in a class I took my freshman year of college, but it took decades before I started to read more about research into spices and their health benefits.”

When you first begin your journey into integrative medicine, dietary modifications often include the elimination of inflammatory foods like sugar, gluten, and dairy, but the emphasis on what you must give up can feel overwhelming. (We speak from experience on this; hence the beauty of gradual change.) Yet shifting your focus onto incorporating spices and vegetables into your diets in the name of health and wellness is a proactive step that feels much less jarring. “My approach to spices, as well as food in general, is that it’s best to get them in their whole, natural form, as opposed to in supplements, and to enjoy a wide variety of both produce and spices to cover your bases from both a flavor and health perspective.”

To get started, you can begin working two of Dr. Shiue’s favorite spices into your meals: cinnamon and turmeric. “The spice for which we have the most scientific evidence (and hype!) for [its] health benefits is turmeric, the most potent natural anti-inflammatory whose main active ingredient, curcumin, works by the same mechanism as ibuprofen,” Dr. Shiue explains. “It also has anti-cancer and heart-protective benefits, and may be helpful in treating Alzheimer’s Disease.” She points out that turmeric is a fabulous addition to curries and other Indian dishes, with research indicating that 2-3 teaspoons per day is recommended for general health. When cooking with turmeric, she notes that it is also important to incorporate black pepper to enhance the absorption of its therapeutic ingredient curcumin. If you own Spicebox Kitchen and want to give a recipe featuring turmeric a try, look up her recipe on Trinidadian Curry Mango.

Next, Dr. Shiue shines the spotlight on cinnamon — a star for both sweet and savory dishes. “Cinnamon has been demonstrated to reduce both blood sugar and blood pressure at a dose of about 1 teaspoon per day,” Dr. Shiue adds. “Beyond the effects of blood sugar, I like to point out that cinnamon is such a sweet spice that you can also use it to reduce the amount of sugar you need in a recipe, so you’ll get even more benefit that way.” Whether you bake with cinnamon, add it to your oatmeal, or even your apple slices, you can try it out in a savory recipe by turning to Dr. Shiue’s recipe for Mujadara Rice with Lentils and Caramelized Onions. Hint: Cinnamon is one of the ingredients in the naturopath-recommended Clear Skin Smoothie.

Getting Started with Spices and Plant-Based Cooking

If you decide to give the plant-forward recipes in Spicebox Kitchen a go — perhaps making your way towards a more planet-friendly flexitarian diet — Dr. Shiue wants to dispel a common rumor about the financial cost associated with vegetarian cuisine. “I’d like to dispel the myth that healthy eating has to be expensive,” she says. “Vegetables are less expensive than meat and other food from animal sources, especially if you buy them in bulk from a farmers’ market (seasonal vegetables mean more flavor and nutrient density!) or frozen (which can be very nutrient-dense when flash-frozen).”

To begin rē•spinning your diets using Dr. Shiue’s culinary insights, here is one of her recipes from Spicebox Kitchen: Eat Well and Be Healthy with Globally Inspired, Vegetable-Forward Recipes.

BAGHRIR (Moroccan “1,000 HOLE” CREPES) WITH ORANGE FLOWER WATER HONEY SYRUP

Makes 15 crepes

Ingredients:

  • 1 ½ cups semolina
  • ¼ cup all-purpose flour or gluten-free alternative
  • 1 ½ teaspoon instant yeast
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups warm water, about 110 degrees Fahrenheit
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder

Method of Preparation 

  1. Unsalted butter or Miyoko’s Vegan Butter, for pan
  2. Blend all ingredients, except butter, for about one minute until smooth. Keep covered and allow to rest for 30 minutes.
  3. After resting, blend batter for another second before cooking.
  4. Heat an 8-inch skillet or omelet pan over medium-low heat.
  5. Pour ¼ cup of batter into pan, spreading immediately to fit the diameter of the pan.
  6. Cook until the surface is covered in holes, about 30 seconds, on only one side. Note: Undercooked is preferable to overdone. The underside should be lightly golden at most.
  7. Keep warm on a plate covered with a clean, dry towel until ready to serve.
  8. Repeat with the remaining batter.

Serve with ORANGE FLOWER WATER HONEY SYRUP

  • Makes about 1 ½ cups syrup
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter or substitute Miyoko’s Vegan Butter
  • ¾ cup honey
  • ½ to 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 to 4 teaspoons orange flower water, to taste
  • Melt together the first three ingredients in a small saucepan over low heat and whisk until smooth.
  • Stir in orange flower water and serve warm.
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