Culinary indulgence over the festive season followed by readings and dialogues with food writers has been a fascinating experience. I had never thought that a cookbook could hold me such – that it could be an aesthetic, sensory and scientific study! These books are not just doling out recipes. They are embedded in anthropology, food science and art. The food-body connect and experimentation are the bedrock of good cooking. Moreover, regional climate and flora-fauna bring variety and colour to the process.
One book which was a delight to read is Kornelia Santoro’s ‘Cooking for Happiness’. Kornelia’s polemics and opinions about diets are based on first-hand experience. Her playfield is the kitchen with food sourced from Goa (where she has been based for the past two decades), the Mediterranean (where she spent time with her first husband) and Germany (where she was born). Her travels in the Iberian Peninsula, Western Europe and US have further enriched her journey in the cooking arena.
Before this, Kornelia bagged the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards for her previous books – ‘Kornelia’s Kitchen: Mediterranean Cooking for India’ and ‘Cooking for Allergies’. Kornelia’s culinary story parallels her personal travails in her early years and her relationship with close family members. Therefore, the book is a bildungsroman of sorts. Cooking is a creative outlet that gives her a perspective on life. “Cooking is a very sensual experience and it has so many implications that are often directed at making you happy,” says Kornelia. “When you cook, you use all your senses, especially your sense of touch, smell and sight. Despite it being such a consuming activity, it works like meditation because it teaches you to be in the moment,” she says.
Greek cuisine made her fall in love with herself. She overcame anorexia nervosa which had dogged her as a teenager. Later her divorce led her to India where she mastered riding an Enfield Bullet and rode it all over the countryside, becoming a cynosure of the Indian populace. Reminiscing about the ride at the Rohtang Pass, Ladakh, she writes: “It snowed heavily but my Enfield pulled through ice and snow heaps. I had just passed the peak of the Rohtang Pass when a scooter with two well-fed Sikhs overtook me. One pink and one green turban left me astonished in their wake.” Mountain magic with Buddhist monks, Pahaaris and pure thin air worked and shortly afterwards, she met the man of her life, married, settled in Goa and had a baby. “My tryst with food changed gear; my Italian husband loves food so I started to cook seriously.”
Given to research in journalism in Regensberg, Germany, she parlayed the skill to food experimentation. With her family as guinea pigs for her spreads, she read voraciously and tried out a mélange of food recipes. Despite this, she still felt that life was a struggle and joy was missing. Premenopausal blues and antidepressant pills led her to investigate cooking for happiness – tapping natural plants and herbs for mood enhancing substances.
Slowly the grey veil lifted and exotic salads (Taboulleh, Guacomole), soups (Gazpacho, Pumpkin), Chicken Liver pate, Rainbow Frittata, Indianised Fasolada, Falafel, Zwiebelkuchen, Thai Coconut curry, Crème Brulee , Qubani ka Meetha, Panna Cotta and other recipes came into being.
She divides the book into three parts – ‘Nourish the Brain’ (Vitamin Bombs, Building Blocks for the Brain, Omega-3 Sources, Happy Belly Happy Mind), ‘Comfort Food’ (Savoury Succulence, Sweet Moments of Bliss, The Chocolate Heaven) and ‘Stress Free Dinner parties’. Her section on ‘Kitchen Must Haves’ and dinner parties doles out a lot of practical advice and encourages any culinary wannabe to take on cooking enthusiastically.
Kornelia writes, “My kitchen is the perfect place to get dopamine fixes. The main feel-good neurotransmitters are dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endmorphin. We need a protein rich diet and Omega-3 to keep up a steady supply of neurotransmitters, the happy makers in our brain.” She detests scientific verdicts of too many eggs, coconut, prawns or butter being harmful for the body. She professes that eating many different kinds of foods is always healthy. According to her, prawns are a rich source of Omega-3. Good-old butter protects joints and makes sure that calcium reaches bones.
Measuring portions for eating gets her ire. To eat wholeheartedly is her advice. “Calculating Fibre? No thanks,” she puts her foot down. She is a flag-bearer of ‘Comfort Food’ – homemade food rich in calories. “Savoury succulence of comfort food like fried potatoes, tzatziki, creamy cheesecake and coconut triangles delights us instantly and our mind responds positively. Thank God for bacon, chocolate and cream,” she adds delightfully.
Food texture – creamy, chewy, crispy – also finds place on her palate. Brown is beautiful – go for whole wheat flour and brown rice, she suggests. Bathe in sunlight half an hour a day for your vitamin D supplement. Chocolate makes the body, mind and neighbour happy. In fact, she adds that she mistrusts people who do not like chocolate. Her list of kitchen must haves includes tips on becoming your own dairy queen and inventing zingy sweet sauces.
Riding high on her hard core, hands-on culinary work, Kornelia’s chutzpah comes to the fore when she vehemently disagrees with Heston Blumenthal (British celebrity chef, whose restaurant ‘The Fat Duck in Bray’ is one of the four restaurants in Great Britain to have three Michelin stars) on certain practical points. Kornelia’s recipes are for the homemaker – tried and tested. She derides complicated processes. Nonetheless, she very much appreciates Heston’s scientific basis of food and follows him and Nigella Lawson’s (Food writer and host) show engagingly. A meeting of spheres, a give and take, a bit of debate spices Kornelia up.
Yes indeed, life is beautiful Kornelia, we just have to like and love what we are and what we do!
Let’s begin the New Year with cooking for happiness!