Debbie Kornberg: Spices, Joyful Cooking & Shawarma Chicken

Taste Buds with Deb - Episode 16
August 2, 2023
Photos courtesy of Debbie Kornberg

“Cooking should be a joy,” believes spice expert Debbie Kornberg.

The founder of Spice + Leaf and host of Spice it Up with Deb, Kornberg can trace her love of cooking back to her childhood.

“I used to cook with my grandmother a lot,” she told the Journal. “I vividly remember stepping on her avocado green step stool in the kitchen, so that I could reach the countertop. I would just cook everything with her.”

Kornberg, who grew up in Westwood, worked in day schools in San Diego for many years, before really infusing herself into the world of cooking,

When Kornberg started working for the Jewish Federation in San Diego, she was responsible for their 5000-attendee Israel Fest. On a site visit to Israel, she discovered a wonderful spice company.

“I thought it would be so neat for them to come to San Diego and be a part of our Israel festival to have that shuk vibe,” Kornberg said. This was back in 2012. She was able to bring spices in from Israel and a lot of them.

The people at the spice company asked Kornberg to go into business with them, something she contemplated for a year and a half. In 2014 she made the career change, and has been selling spices – and teaching cooking classes that highlight them – ever since.

When asked what she wished people knew about spices, Kornberg said they can really add zip to a meal. It can take anything from a vegetable to a protein and elevate it to the next level.

“I believe I became a better cook by cooking with spices [and spice blends], and I think it can help most people,” Kornberg said.

Spices are also a healthy way to integrate nutrients into your diet. Turmeric, for example, has numerous anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer benefits. Plus, you can reduce your sodium by using sumac, since it has a lemon acidic flavor.

“When you use [sumac] in your seasoning, It makes you feel like you’re tasting something that is salty, even though there’s no salt content in there,” she said. “Whatever dietary needs you may have, [spices] elevate the flavor of your food.”.

Food also tastes better when you are in a good mood while cooking. If that means listening to happy music while you cook, go for it!

“Find things that you feel comfortable with in cooking to build up your skills,” Kornberg said.

Plus, if you are making chicken … again … or fish, pasta or vegetables, incorporating different flavors can change it up.

“You are rotating through the foods that are probably the staples in your household, so you want to be able to offer that variety,” she said.

Beyond that, have a basic repertoire of cooking techniques, so you can change up how you’re preparing your proteins. For instance, with chicken, are you grilling it? Baking it? Pan-cooking it? Are you making it in a stew?

“Whether [your protein] goes on a salad, it’s in a sandwich wrap [or] it’s on a bed of rice, it just feels a little bit different when you’re complementing it with other foods,” Kornberg said.

Kornberg says that just because she knows how to cook does not mean it’s always easy.

“We’ve got every flavor of eating-lifestyle in my household,” she said. “I have a pescatarian, a non-pescetarian who will eat chicken but nothing else and I try to be gluten-lite.”

One of her favorite go-to recipes is shawarma chicken. Recipe is below.

“It cooks fast if you cook it in a pan,” she said. “Dice up the chicken a little bit on the smaller side. I can do all my prep in 15 minutes and cook everything in 15 minutes.

For instance, you can dice up some onions or you can go to the grocery and buy the pre-cut ones.

“Use every cheat in the book,” she said. “That’s what the spices are. It’s a cheat. [When you] start to smell the spices, it’ll fill your kitchen. Your mouth will start to water; you’ll get all excited.”

You can serve shawarma chicken on a bed of salad or over rice.

“For my son, who’s the pescatarian, I will have another little burner going with some alternative chicken for him,” Kornberg said. “Then we can all sit down and have a meal together.”

By switching up what you put the chicken with, and in one case switching up the actual chicken, this meal works for everybody.

“I just love having everybody here and gathering [for a meal],” Kornberg said. That’s what creates meaningful experiences.”

Get more recipes at spiceandleaf.com.

For the full conversation, listen to the podcast:

Watch the interview:

Shawarma Chicken

By Debbie Kornberg


1.5 lbs. chicken breasts (cut into 1/2 inch cubes)

2 -3 Tbsp. SPICE + LEAF Shawarma Blend

2-3 Tbsp. olive oil SPICE + LEAF Galili Olive Oil

1 medium onion, chopped

10 mushrooms, sliced

Salt to taste


In a bowl, place cut chicken and sprinkle shawarma blend, until poultry is fully coated with spice blend. Set aside.

In a pan, add olive oil and sauté onions (and optional mushrooms). Once onions (and mushrooms) are cooked down, remove from the pan and place in a bowl. Set aside.

Add 2 Tbsp. of olive oil to the sauté pan, place the stove on high heat. Cook chicken; ideally you want to get a nice sear on the outside of chicken and then turn down to slightly lower heat (medium to medium-high) and cook chicken all the way through. (Do not cover the pan, the chicken will get soggy and rubbery.)

Once chicken is fully cooked, add onions and mushrooms, and mix together. Remove from heat and serve! Shawarma pairs well with roasted potatoes, rice, hummus, cucumber-tomato salad and tahini dressing. Enjoy!

*Vegetarian Alternative: Use Cauliflower Florets. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Coat vegetable with olive oil and sprinkle Shawarma spice on top and roast for until crispy brown on top for about 18 minutes.

Feel like grilling next time? Place cubed shawarma chicken on skewers and use olive oil cooking spray to coat chicken and cook on grill. Also really yummy!

Debra Eckerling is a writer for the Jewish Journal and the host of “Taste Buds with Deb.Subscribe on YouTube or your favorite podcast platform. Email Debra: tastebuds@jewishjournal.com.

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