INTERVIEW: SpiceBox Organics Founder Punam Chopra “Eating Healthy Can Solve So Many Problems In Life”
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SpiceBox Organics is a boutique USDA-certified organic store and café in Hong Kong that specialises in high-quality ingredients, snacks and freshly prepared grab-and-go meals that are healthy and earth-friendly. Since its inception in 2012, SpiceBox Organics’s two locations in Mid Levels and Kennedy Town have become a go-to for health-conscious folk in the city to stock up on all of their organic pantry needs. In this interview, we sat down with the founder and organic retail pioneer Punam Chopra, who shared with us her insights on how the pandemic is affecting the health food industry, the growth in consumer awareness on nutrition and her personal cooking and fitness tips whilst spending more time at home.
GQ: You have been in the health and fitness industry for many years, can you tell us a bit about how your journey led you to found SpiceBox Organics?
PC: I’ve been on my health and fitness journey for many years, since my early 20s. I was an athlete in school, so I was always into health, but the nutrition element really came in later when I was in New York City where I was teaching yoga and practicing as a Nutrition Coach after studying at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. This was really what gave me the foundation for where I needed to be in life.
Then I got a job in Hong Kong and moved here in 2006, but I found it really difficult to find good quality organic products anywhere. So it was my own quest for good quality, organic foods that led me to research the concept to open something to offer that to the community. I wanted to bring quality ingredients to encourage people to cook their own healthy meals using whole food products like, grains, seeds, spices, healthy flours, superfoods, and provide sweet alternatives to use in baked desserts. I believe in whole grains, and I believe that eating healthy and changing your diet can help solve so many problems in life.
GQ: How has SpiceBox grown over the years?
I started SpiceBox Organics as an organic-only store in Sai Ying Pun in 2012. It was challenging, since I didn’t really know many people here, so it really was a huge learning process. Our cooking workshops started from the Sai Ying Pun location and we built our community around our classes which included many wonderful teachers.
The next store I opened was at Caine Road, which is a café and a marketplace, because we wanted to provide plant-based meals, snacks, drinks, desserts and smoothies using those very ingredients we sell. This made our business an interactive one – where people could try out an international array of dishes, gluten-free desserts, healthy smoothies, wholesome soups and a variety of grab-and-go snacks from hummus to crackers. Our kitchen was small at the time, so we decided to open up our Kennedy Town store and café with a full production kitchen and a store upstairs. This store operates as a takeaway for both food products and groceries.
All of this is driven by my belief that the community has a need for fresh ingredients like tempeh and fresh organic vegetables in order to follow a plant-based lifestyle, which comes with so many benefits for our health.
GQ: As a true health insider and pioneer in the space in Hong Kong, how has the health food industry changed and progressed over time?
PC: It has been a really exciting evolution. I definitely see a greater interest these days and more towards immune health compared to a couple of years ago, though there was always an interest here in Hong Kong as people enjoy cooking at home. It’s just that now, people are adding in more wholesome ingredients into their diet consciously to improve their nutrition, health and immunity. I have also noticed that more people are converting to a vegetarian or plant-based lifestyle. We see it in our workshops where we teach simple food creations – sprouting, cooking sprouted grain meals, creating flatbreads out of a variety of gluten-free and nutrient-rich flours, making desserts. We also host nutrition talks with our brand ambassadors and health coaches, where there has been greater momentum focused on eating nutrient-dense foods like tempeh, which is a complete protein, sauerkraut and dairy-free yoghurts. This is something that wasn’t mainstream a couple of years ago.
GQ: Do you think that Hong Kongers are now more in tune with the link between nutritious food and health?
PC: Yes, absolutely. Our cooking classes, workshops, health talks and events have really attracted more of the community coming over time. Of course, not right now during the pandemic, but there was an ongoing trend in the years and months before that where I saw more and more local visitors showing an interest in nutrition. We have an advantage here in Hong Kong because local people already enjoy cooking food at home, and herbal health is already a part of life here. So when we introduced our Ayurveda line of herbal supplements and Tulsi teas in 2012, we really saw a lot of local customers naturally inclined to try them. Today, we are able to represent the best company Organic India and their entire line of whole herb supplements and teas. And now, of course with the pandemic, even more people are realising the link and are becoming aware of the benefits of vegan and vegetarian lifestyles.
GQ: SpiceBox Organics is a store full of organic, high-quality food and ingredients. Are you yourself passionate about home cooking?
PC: I am, and always have been! I’m actually very particular about where I go to eat. I do enjoy dining out once in a while, but I am quite picky about getting high-quality food. Though I am not able to cook every day due to my work schedule, I love trying out new dishes whenever I can. I’ve been dairy-free for over a month and have been experimenting with some baked savoury quiches, lasagne, pizza, and Indian dishes like a plant-based version of scrambled akuri.
GQ: Particularly given the coronavirus pandemic, do you think that more people are now trying to cook wholesome meals at home to stay fit and healthy? Do you think that this will last after the pandemic is over?
PC: For us at SpiceBox Organics, promoting the conscious choice has always been our goal, to make a choice about what we put into our bodies. We’ve always advocated for as much plant-based as possible. It has taken us 7 years to keep encouraging cooking at home and I see it growing, but with the recent social distancing, I definitely think that it will continue to be a part of people’s journey to keep healthy. The pandemic has really given it an extra push. I think as a society, we know that we haven’t seen the last of a pandemic, and we must maintain strong and healthy lives on a regular basis. So I think that more and more people will be seeking healthier foods and alternatives to animal products, even when this current crisis is over.
GQ: SpiceBox Organics has partnered with a lot of delivery companies as well as offering delivery to customers via the store’s own online shop. Do you feel like this is a part of the company evolving to changing circumstances over the last 9 months, first with the social instability and now, the pandemic?
PC: We’ve been partnering with Deliveroo and FoodPanda since 2015, and recently were requested to go onto PandaMart as well. We have also been with Jou Sun and HKTV mall to reach a larger local audience too, in addition to running our own online store that offers the entire range of our products at SpiceBox Organics, from grab-and-go snacks to ingredients and frozen meal sets. So our online sales have always been a strong part of our business, but this diversified model has definitely been important to help adapt to changing circumstances over time.
GQ: What are some of the other ways SpiceBox has adapted to coronavirus?
PC: Internally, we’ve adapted by deep-cleaning our locations and kitchens, following stringent practices and ramping up our kitchen hygiene standards even more. We practice social distancing among front-counter team members by reducing hours of work with full-pay, so that we reduce the exposure of our staff. Hand sanitiser is offered to both our customers and are staff, and we use only biodegradable takeaway tableware to reduce contamination. Externally, we also check the temperature of customers and we encourage the wearing of masks within our premises. All our product packages are also wiped in advance before it enters our stores.
GQ: How do you think the coronavirus will affect the health and organic industry as a whole?
PC: I think that the impact will be positive by way of increasing consumer demand and awareness about health and lifestyle improvements, particularly towards vegetarian and vegan lifestyles. There is a bit of a worry in terms of the pricing of grains and pulses, as they could be on the rise globally, but in terms of health awareness, it’s been positive.
GQ: You recently visited the United States for the Natural Organic Expo, which was unfortunately cancelled due to the coronavirus. What are some health food trends that you discovered while stateside?
PC: Despite the cancellation, it was an eventful and fantastic experience. I was able to meet and spend a whole day cooking with Tracy Childs from Veg-Appeal, who is an amazing vegan chef and a contributor to many books and platforms. Spending a day with Tracy was a huge learning experience for myself, and I am thankful for the opportunity to learn lots of new recipes to make plant-based cheeses, raw crackers and more. I was also able to attend a talk by Dr. Neal Bernard, who launched his new book A Body in Balance at the San Diego University. I visited farmers markets and enjoyed lots of plant-based foods, so it was a trip that really fulfilled me in my personal health journey.
In terms of trends, I noticed a huge shift towards fermented. We don’t have as many types of plant-based yoghurts available here in Hong Kong, and though we have plant-based cheeses, we don’t have as big a selection. Good breads, gluten-free wholesome snacks and crackers too – that is something I noticed.
GQ: Do you have any tips for Hong Kongers who are looking for healthy home cooking advice and recommendations on how to stay in the best shape whilst spending more time at home during the pandemic?
PC: Definitely. We already have lots of recipes on our website, including a recipe book on all our own spice blends, but I do have some simple tips for everyone:
- Soak your beans and lentils overnight, and keep them handy! They are super easy to boil and can be used to make a variety of dishes, from stews, stir-fries and soups to salads and sauces such as bolognese. They are protein and nutritional powerhouses.
- Try out a complete plant protein such as tempeh – we have a lovely tempeh kebab recipe on our website.
- Create a bowl meal, which is so fun to create and you can top it with your favourite add-ons.
- Re-do your pantry and make sure to stock some nutritional yeast, which is great to sprinkle on salads and create plant-based cheesy and creamy sauces.
- Spice up your meals with chipotle, cayenne pepper and chilli flakes, and try out Himalayan pink salt or black salt.
- Add turmeric and ginger to your meals whenever you can – they are really great for boosting immunity.
- Add a fermented raw food like sauerkraut as a side to any meal.
- Now’s the right time to take a step back from white sugar – you can experiment with alternative natural sweeteners such as brown rice syrup, coconut sugar or maple syrup to satisfy any sweet cravings.
- And finally, make sure you eat at least one plant-based meal each day!
GQ: What are some of your favourite recipes, products and brands?
PC: These days, it’s plant-based cheese. I’ve been experimenting with the lessons I learned in San Diego, and recently made a high-protein lasagne with a bean bolognese, tofu ricotta and cashew cheese layered beautifully with zucchini. I also eat tempeh religiously, as it helps my iron levels since I do not consume any animal products. I’ve recently made a delicious tempeh curry in a yellow curry sauce and coconut milk. But my all time favourite is kichiri – the rice and lentil Indian congee. It’s a once a week fix that I can’t live without.
In terms of my favourite products and brands, I love Organic India’s line of health and whole herb supplements and teas, Kehoe’s line of sauerkrauts and vegan cheeses, and of course, SpiceBox Organics’ own mung bean tempeh and spice blends.
GQ: How important is sustainability to the ethos of SpiceBox? What are some ways SpiceBox works to be sustainable?
PC: We have always been about making conscious choices, so sustainability is incredibly important. We have always used biodegradable and plant-based containers and cutlery for our food. We make sure to reduce food waste in our kitchens by using up vegetable scraps to make stock for soups, use aquafaba – chickpea water – in baking, and we are changing up our own product packaging to kraft pouches. Recently, we experimented with a biodegradable plastic that we can use to package our tempeh, and we also reuse our old product cartons to deliver online orders. There is still more to do, and we will continue to find ways to reduce waste and head in that direction.
GQ: Final question – we always ask: team rice or team noodles?
PC: Team rice!
Shop online at www.spiceboxorganics.com – free delivery for orders over HK$300.
More recipes available: https://www.spiceboxorganics.com/recipes/
Lead image courtesy of Punam Chopra / SpiceBox Organics.
This is a Green Queen Partner Post.