Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Q&A with Lisa Joy Mitchell

Lisa Joy Mitchell is the author of the new book Sacred & Delicious: A Modern Ayurvedic Cookbook. A public speaker and wellness mentor, she teaches Ayurvedic cooking. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Q: What was the inspiration for this cookbook?

A: Ultimately, I wrote Sacred & Delicious because I wanted to share a healing path and an approach to eating that helped me recover from years of chronic pain and illness. I am, by nature, an enthusiastic promoter of everything I value, especially if I can help others avoid needless suffering.

I had been having digestive problems for several months when I first visited the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

When I got home, I began cooking out of Ayurvedic Cooking for Self-Healing by Usha Lad and Vasant Lad, the Institute’s founder who first inspired me on the path of Ayurveda. The process of healing that had begun at the institute was supported by the food—and especially by Usha’s classic kitchari, a simple dish of rice and split mung (a type of legume) seasoned with spices.

I read Dr. Lad’s introduction to this book many times, and I pored over his lists that categorize various foods according to their impact on the body, mind, and emotions. I treasure this book and—even though it’s tattered—still use it as a reference.

Once I began to assimilate this information, I started to experiment with making American-style dishes according to Ayurvedic principles of balance. That was the real beginning of this book, Sacred & Delicious. It’s not that I immediately thought, “Oh, I’ll write a cookbook!”

I began by recording lists of ingredients (no directions included) in spiral notebooks for each dish I created or adapted from family recipes—just so that I would remember what went into them.

Much to my surprise, I became more and more excited about the creative process of developing new dishes and adapting old favorites. Every time a dish worked—every time the food was delicious and healthy—I was thrilled. I felt I’d accomplished something wonderful. I think it was my husband—and the guests at our table—who initially suggested I share these recipes in a book.  

Q: How did you come up with the title?

A: When I began creating the first computer documents for a book, I named the file Healthy Comfort Food. A few years later, when I’d become committed to publishing a book, a marketing friend asked if I had purchased the .com for my title. Big oops—I hadn’t even thought about it. Healthycomfortfood.com was taken and not for sale. Soon after, I sat down with a pad of paper and a pen to think about this.  

I’ve always loved sacred rituals associated with meals, having grown up in an observant Jewish family. This foundation, which I later integrated with a devotional meditation path, are likely reasons that I started playing with the word “sacred” during this contemplation.

When the title Sacred & Delicious arose from inside, it felt like a gift. Having become a true foodie during my 15 years living in Dallas, the play of “sacred” with “delicious” seemed an inspired way to communicate all that’s important to me about food.

Q: For people who are unfamiliar with the idea, could you define Ayurvedic cooking?

A: At its most basic level, Ayurvedic cooking balances the qualities of food to support an individual’s constitution for wellness or—if this is needed—to counteract disease processes or acute health problems. How to actually do this is a more complex answer!

Ayurvedic cooking starts with the understanding that food can be medicine or it can be poison. As important, specific foods that are healing for one individual can cause havoc for someone else.

I’ll give you a simple example: butter and coconut oil are excellent if you are very thin, have dry skin, and frequent constipation. These same foods, on the other hand, are best eaten in only modest amounts if you tend to put on weight easily or you experience chronic sinus problems.

Ayurveda categorizes all foods and spices according to qualities found in nature, each having a specific impact on the body, mind, and emotions. These qualities include whether a food is cooling or heating to the metabolism; whether it is heavy or light in the digestive tract; and whether its effect on the body is dry or oily. Each of six tastes (sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, astringent) also has a unique impact.

Returning to the notion of balance, the goal of Ayurvedic cooking is to balance these stated qualities because too much of any quality or taste can lead to health problems.

Much of this is intuitive. Eating cold food or foods that cool the metabolism—for instance, cucumbers—will increase the cold quality in a person. Such foods can be beneficial for many of us during the hot summertime but not at all helpful in the chill of winter, when warm foods are more helpful. Much of this balancing wisdom is employed by all cultures to one degree or another.

A more sophisticated explanation of Ayurvedic cooking includes an understanding of the dynamic organizing principles in the human body that Ayurveda calls the doshas. These are aligned with what Ayurveda identifies as the natural elements—earth, air, fire, water, and space.

Each person has a unique combination of doshas. Once someone understands their dominant dosha or which doshas are out of balance, they can choose the specific foods that support ongoing wellness or recovery from particular health problems.

Finally, let me add that Ayurvedic cooking was developed thousands of years ago when freshly cooked food was the only option. That premise remains true in Ayurvedic cooking today. In short, eat fresh food! I found that I started feeling much better when I gave up packaged and refined foods.

Q: How did you decide on the recipes to include in the cookbook?

A: I used three criteria:

Is it delicious?

Is it healthy for most people, or can it be adapted for most people? (I offer tips about adapting by dosha in most of the recipes.)

Are people going to eat these foods for special occasions, regardless of health concerns? And if so, can I create a healthier version? For instance, what is a birthday without cake! So, I’ve included a Chocolate Layer Cake and a Carrot Cake, both gluten-free, using no white sugar.

Q: Do you have some particular favorite recipes?

A: Absolutely! Soups are always a favorite, because they are satisfying dishes and often can serve as a one-dish and one- or two-pot meal.

The Chickpea Soup is a great fall and winter dish because it’s hearty and warming with Mediterranean accents of sun-dried tomatoes and olives.

When I want to wow guests who are new to our table, I offer them Broccoli Soup with Almond Butter. It uses Indian spices—black mustard seeds, cumin seeds, and curry leaves—but you won’t recognize it as Indian food because there are no chilies or cayenne, and the almond butter seems distinctly American.

During warm months, my favorite soup is Carrot Soup with coconut milk, cilantro, and mint. It’s delicious if you like cilantro, and I include some tips for how to adapt the recipe for winter using fresh basil and ginger instead.

Once a week, no matter what, I make Mung Soup because it’s an easy slow-cooker meal.  If I’ve veered off my pristine diet with a dessert treat or rare high-carb meal, I follow it up the next day with Mung Soup. And once a month, I’ll make Mung Soup three days running.

This is on the advice of Smita Naram, a well-respected Ayurvedic physician. Dr. Naram established a restaurant in her Ayurvedic clinic in Mumbai, India, and she shared her Mung Soup recipe with me. She says that cooked whole mung beans detoxify the colon, lymph system, liver, and kidneys. Mung soup is the best insurance for wellness and supports recovery from chronic health problems.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m always developing new recipes for my blog at my website. And I’m working on a memoir.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I got started on the path of Ayurveda because of my husband, Tom Mitchell, who has been a profoundly positive influence in my life. He is a chiropractic physician who has integrated Ayurveda into his practice. It was Tom who urged me to go to the Ayurvedic Institute to interrupt a scary downward spiral in my health—so I like to give him credit!

I encourage readers to recognize healthy eating as an act of self-love. At the same time, I don’t want people to think they’re going to lose out on culinary pleasures to protect their health. I’m a strong advocate of moderation in all things (unless someone has a food intolerance), and I’m a believer that delicious is always paramount on the road to healthy!

It’s also important to note that you don’t need to be vegetarian to benefit from the wisdom of Ayurveda, which also has specific insights for people who eat meat.

Finally, Sacred & Delicious is far more than a cookbook or even an Ayurvedic primer for an American audience. The book is imbued with insights from my spiritual practice along with my exploration of the phrase “food is sacred.”

My hope is that people who read Sacred & Delicious will experience what I have: a healthy and joyful relationship with food that leads to many benefits—even moments of spiritual awakening—and can be ultimately transforming.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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