‘The wake up call I needed to change my lifestyle’: the Auckland chef fighting diabetes through nutritious, flavoursome food

By Kathryn Chung

‘The wake up call I needed to change my lifestyle’: the Auckland chef fighting diabetes through nutritious, flavoursome food

When Komal Swamy found out she had been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, it was like her world had been turned upside down. She was only 27-years-old at the time and recalls feeling like things were “turning in slow motion” when her doctor gave her the news. “My HbA1c (blood sugar level) was 121 which is extremely high, whereas normal HbA1c is 41,” she says. “I could not believe I let myself get so bad with my health.”

Knowing that her diagnosis put her at a higher risk of heart attack and stroke, she remembers crying to her family telling them “I don’t want to die from this.”

It was her sister, Sonali, her “backbone” who, through a bit of tough love, inspired her to fight for her health. “She said “the only one that can make that change is you. You are the strongest and most determined person I know and you have the strongest mindset and can do it.””

Komal Swamy (right) with her sister, Sonali

Wary of going straight onto medication, Swamy, with the support of her doctor, set about reversing her diagnosis over six months through diet and lifestyle changes. “My doctor agreed if I gave her three monthly blood tests so she knew I was safe. Her advice was that “It didn’t happen overnight so it won’t go down overnight.” Challenge accepted! From that day I changed my lifestyle.”

She began eating more balanced, nutritious meals and working out at the gym at 4 am every day. “I didn’t take anything out of my diet just made better choices. For example, pasta became wholemeal pasta, white rice  became brown rice and sugar became maple syrup, dates and coconut sugar. The only thing I cut back on was processed food and just ate wholefoods.”

“Within 6 months my HbAlc dropped to 62. Feeling proud of my accomplishments, I carried on and started to feel healthy from within.” Four months later, her HbAlc had dropped to 41.

Inspired to help others to make better diet and lifestyle choices, Swamy started Koko & Chai with her sister, Sonali, offering catering and gourmet ‘heat and eat’ meals.

As an experienced chef, Swamy is passionate about creating nutritious food that’s full of flavour. Cooking was a big part of her life growing up in Fiji and her parents often cooked different cuisines while using fresh, organic whole foods. “I remember dad used to cook Asian fusion while mum cooked Fijian Indian food. Both my parents didn’t follow recipes, they just cooked from their hearts and still do.

“I was heavily influenced by the way they cooked. I remember at school all the children used to bring Indian food whilst my siblings and I had Chinese, Indo western food etc which I obviously loved. Variety is the spice of life.”

By age 10, Swamy had taught herself how to de-skin a whole chicken and by 12 she had mastered her own masala chai. At 18, she started her career as a chef, going on to work in Melbourne, before pursuing a career as a private chef.

As a young female chef in a notoriously male-dominated industry, she’s had to learn to stand up for herself. “Not everyone is as nice as you think. You have to always believe in yourself and your passion as it is going to make you grow as a person and in your career.”

Swamy’s mindset around cooking is very much driven by the way she ate growing up. “I was used to eating very simple but complex meals using fresh, organic and free-range ingredients. I try to create my menu and recipes like that, I want to make the ingredients speak for themselves. All the food we eat doesn’t have to be hard, it just needs TLC (tender, love and care), as cliché as it sounds.”

With an infectious smile and bubbly personality, Swamy says what she enjoys most about her job is seeing the joy on people’s faces when people eat her food. “I love watching their expressions when flavours explode in their mouths. I love meeting and connecting people through food. I love listening to people’s stories and what they have experienced with food around the world and try to recreate their memory of it.”  

She says they have many hopes and goals for the future of Koko & Chai. “We just want to grow and be internationally recognised. One day we hope to have a book and a small cafe or restaurant. We want to be in a financial position where we can help families who are struggling with food in New Zealand and around the world. We want to help people take control of their health just as I did with my diabetes.”

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