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Original Essays

Spices of Life

by Nina Simonds
Although I am best known as a food writer and cook with an expertise in Asian cooking, I've always used food as a vehicle to study about culture, history, and ritual. For me, food is much more than just recipes (although I love creating and cooking them). And from my very first trip to Asia when I was nineteen, over thirty years ago, I became fascinated with what the Chinese eat when they have colds (chicken soup with ginger) or at "particular" times of the month (chicken soup with dang gui, which is credited as being one of the most effective medicines for numerous gynecological disorders). I learned that for centuries, Asian doctors and cooks have embraced a belief in the preventative and healing properties of food.

This idea of "food as medicine" really captivated me. I also noticed that most of these Asian "therapeutic" dishes really tasted GOOD! They nurtured and satisfied the body on several different levels. In Asia (unlike in this country), even the "healthy" dishes taste delicious and give pleasure.

I started researching and writing about this topic in articles. Back then, I gleaned information from grandmothers and older women who would cook these dishes for their families. And there were one or two Chinese doctors who shared some knowledge. I also noticed, in traveling around Asia as well as the rest of the world, that every culture has their panaceas and comfort, or "mommy," foods.

Many years later, I compiled much of the material that I had researched and wrote a book titled A Spoonful of Ginger, which was published by Knopf in 1999. For that book, I traveled all over Asia (and other parts of the world), seeking out delicious and health-giving dishes from home cooks and studying with some of the most respected authorities in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

For Spices of Life, my latest book, I wanted to go further and come full circle, so to speak. It was important to me to offer irresistible, accessible recipes (that I love and prepare every day for my family), and to include the latest nutritional information. I also wanted to show how, with simple tips, to integrate all of this easily into our busy lives. I wanted to do something that no cookbook had done before — to offer recipes (lifestyle and food) for pleasure as well as health. And, as I was to learn, herbs and spices are the key to this equation.

So I went to India, the source, and visited an organic spice garden in the mountains of Kerala, along the southwestern coast of India. There Manu Abraham, a third generation spice grower, showed me buds of clove growing alongside allspice, mace, nutmeg, cardamom, and cinnamon trees with roots of ginger and turmeric. It was extraordinary to see them all growing side by side! As he pointed out each spice, he told me about its therapeutic properties.

I also traveled to a wonderful Ayurvedic Center in southern central India to meet Dr. U. K. Krishna and learn about the practices of Ayurveda, the ancient art of Indian medicine. During the day, I would alternate soothing and rejuvenating, warm sesame-oil massages with discussions with Dr. U. K. on the Ayurvedic approach to lifestyle and maintaining great health. I also feasted on superb vegetarian food that reminded me how delicious and satisfying healthy food can be.

I was fascinated to learn that Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine share the same philosophy — the importance of balance in everything you do and the idea that disease occurs when there is an imbalance in the system. As I learned with my research for Spoonful of Ginger, delicious food can play a central role in maintaining that balance. Dr. U. K. also taught me some basic strategies, which I share in Spices, which can be integrated effortlessly into your daily life.

All this time, as I was studying more and more about the Eastern philosophy of "food as medicine," an extraordinary thing was happening in the West: Doctors and nutritionists who had begun researching the health-giving properties of certain foods were actually finding scientific proof that they existed.

I started to attend conferences, reading nutritional and medical journals, and meeting with some of the most prominent authorities in nutrition and health to learn about their research. Their work inspired me and I felt would inspire others, so, interwoven between the recipes in Spices of Life, are introductions to people like Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, who shares his redesign of the USDA Food Pyramid and his personal eating strategies. Dr. Andrew Weil, one of the pioneers of integrative medicine and an unabashed "foodie" gives advice for supplements, and Dr. Jim Duke, one of the western world's foremost authorities on herbs and spices, selects the most important culinary herbs and explains their health-giving and healing properties, drawing from his considerable knowledge of ancient lore and contemporary research.

With this book, I hope to seduce the reader with food that is prepared simply with fresh seasonal ingredients enhanced with vibrant herbs and seasonings that provide satisfaction as well as sustenance. Like many, I am a busy, working mother so most of the recipes are designed for convenience and simplicity. The food also reflects my eclectic personal tastes which extend beyond the realm of Asian cooking. The recipes are inspired by research as well as my recent travels through Asia and Europe. I also share a number of my family's favorites. I truly believe that by adopting a few of the easy lifestyle changes I recommend in the book and preparing some of the enticing recipes, everyone can make a pleasurable difference in the quality of their lives and health.

Today, I am on the Nutrition Roundtable at the Harvard School of Public Health and am working on a groundbreaking study with the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, the world's leading institute for diabetic research and prevention. Now, my professional activities include work with doctors, researchers, and nutritionists, helping them to translate their work into appealing, accessible recipes and helpful lifestyle tips. And to think it all started many years ago with that bowl of chicken soup with ginger.... spacer

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