Riya Khan was born in Bangladesh. In 1997, at the age of 9, her kidneys failed. By the end of August that same year, she was doing peritoneal dialysis. Two years later, at the age of 11, she decided to have a meal ready for her mother when she came home from work. She cooked up a special version of potatoes called Aloo Bhorta. She mixed them together with chili, onions, and cilantro, then fried the mixture in a pan. She was proud of her accomplishment, and it made her feel good to know it made her mother happy. At the end of March 2001, she was transplanted with a kidney from a deceased donor.
By age 15, Riya was cooking complete meals for her family. It was fun for her to see people enjoying what she created, and it made her happy.
Cooking became a good coping mechanism for her, as it helped ward off the depression that dealing with an illness can cause. She cooks not only to sustain her health, but also to create visually pleasing dishes that stimulate the taste buds.
“When we feel down, it’s because we feel that we are not in control. Cooking for me is about being in control.”
Riya attended college to earn a degree in psychology. She continued her education by studying law in Tampa, Florida, preparing meals when she had the time. Taking the bar took a lot of time and caused her a lot of stress. Since her health was her number one priority, she decided not to pursue that goal; however, her education provides her with opportunities that she finds interesting and gives her an option to work from home. In 2000 she attended RSN’s first Renal Teen Prom. She had so much fun that she came back each year until she reached age 25. She will be attending the 25th prom as volunteer ambassador because she loves inspiring her younger peers.
Riya also has an interest in learning about different cultures, and exploring new cooking techniques leads her to discovering a variety of cultural dishes. She takes on the challenge of following complex recipes because it diverts her attention away from negative thoughts. Three of her favorite food related shows include The Bear, Taste of the Nation with Padma Lakshmi on Hulu, and Somebody Feed Phil on Netflix. She also likes to discover new cuisines when she travels. When she discovers a delicious dish she wants to replicate, she does a web search with the dish name to get her started.
Her favorite brunch is Turkish eggs. She makes the recipe with Greek yogurt, garlic, and lemon juice, and drizzles her home-made chili butter over it. “It’s one of the best dishes of all time,” she says. “I cook mostly with olive oil and avocado oil. Calabrian chili oil from Italy is another one of my favorites.”
How can choosing the right foods contribute to one’s health? The key to that, she says, is to cook from scratch and avoid processed foods. She reads food labels and eats balanced meals that include lots of plant-based foods. She uses sea salt, spices, and herbs to bring out the flavor in foods. “My favorite is a vegetarian diet,” she says. She follows chefs on Instagram, buys seasonal produce, fresh fish and seafood at a local seafood market, and purchases hard to find ingredients online.
She is grateful her lab numbers remain stable, and her creatine level is 1.2-1.6. She knows drinking enough water contributes to the success of her transplant. She knows a transplant is not a cure and someday she may need another one, so she is mindful of maintaining a healthy lifestyle to not put any extra stressors on it.
She believes in doing everything in moderation so she can maintain a healthy weight. “It’s about portion-control,” she says. “Get to know your body.” Exercise is an important part of her life as well; she walks 2.5 miles every day with her beloved fur-babies, Cinnamon and Zuri.
Riya’s best friend is her roommate, who is always up to trying a new culinary creation. The dogs are also her taste-testers, especially her dog Cinnamon. Her dogs have been with her through a lot. Having these furry friends around also helps keep her spirits up.
Her best friend suggested that she create an Instagram page. Riya was not convinced of its worth but did it anyway and began posting photos of the foods she was preparing. She enjoyed getting all the positive feedback. Her photos will inspire anyone to start cooking. You can look her up at @cookinmyfeelings.
To anyone who deals with depression, she offers these words of encouragement: “When we feel down, it’s because we feel that we are not in control. Cooking for me is about being in control. It’s creative and takes the mind off things that get us down; it makes people happy.”
How can people get started? “My advice is to start with easy recipes. Figure out what types of foods you like and build from there. Watch videos. We have so much information at our fingertips now with all these videos available online. That’s how I learn,” she says.
Riya stays in good spirits when she is busy or has a new recipe saved on her phone that she wants to try. Through her travels she will discover more new recipes, and that will dish up more servings of “happy” for her!
“For me, controlling depression boils down to this: Find something that makes you happy and do it often!” she says.
Mary Nesfield has enjoyed a long career in magazine publishing.
She is a freelance writer and editor for Renal Support Network and works from her home in Columbia, South Carolina.
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