Kornelia Santoro and her ‘Cooking for Happiness’

Happy belly, happy mind: With this credo, award-winning food writer Kornelia Santoro set out to find happiness in her kitchen. The result is called Cooking for Happiness and was just published by HarperCollins. In 100 recipes this German writer based in Goa explains, how you can improve your mood with food.

Can you fight depression by simply eating right? Yes, you can. By sheer indulgence.  We talk with the award-winning author about her new book and the story behind writing it.

Why did you start writing this book and when?

I started writing this book a long time ago, about five years I would say. I think my previous books have prepared me for this one. Honestly, maybe all my life I have been guided to this point. I worked as a certified newspaper journalist in Germany. For ten years I was writing on a daily basis – a good exercise in developing a clear writing style that everybody understands. Although I consider my first two books (Kornelia’s Kitchen – Mediterranean Cooking for India and Kornelia’s Kitchen 2 – Cooking for Allergies) really worth of reading, I think this one is the book the universe wanted me to write from the beginning. In this book I write about the pinnacle of my experiences, about everything I have learnt in the 54 years of my existence. The quest for happiness is one of the ultimate searches in life. Everybody wants to be happy but few people really are. I do not pretend that I am happy all day long but I believe I have made a serious impact on my feelings with the right kind of food.

How long did it take you to research this book?

I put all my experiences with food into this book, so my research through personal experiences stretches over a period of more than three decades. The research for this book by reading literature – mostly from the USA – and by looking up hundreds of websites took me about three years.

Cooking for happiness and eating to be happy: Is there a big difference?

Cooking for happiness is intimately connected with eating to stay happy. I believe in home cooking. Preparing your own meals gives you control over the ingredients. It is very convenient and a lot of fun to eat out in restaurants and it can make you happy. But if you want to influence your mood seriously with food, you need to make an effort in the kitchen. I believe in simple meals – standing in the kitchen all day long to prepare a meal that is eaten in a few minutes is not my idea of happiness. You need to cook and eat the right kind of food to achieve happiness and a healthy balance in your brain. You can only realize this with home cooking because only then do you know that you consume healthy fats and premium ingredients.

In your book, you have mentioned about how you’ve suffered from eating disorders. When did your terror of eating change into love for food?

When you suffer from anorexia nervosa, you are obsessed with food. Almost every waking second you think about food and you learn everything you can about it. Not only calorie counting, but also cooking. I started to collect cookbooks at the age of 16, when I was totally in the grip of this mental disease. One symptom of anorexia nervosa is that you start to cook delicious food and you give it to the people around you. On the one hand, you fatten them up, on the other hand you can feel superior because you do not eat the yummy food that you have cooked. Anorexia nervosa is a lot about control – the control of your desires, urges and the control over your body. At this point food is your enemy. Despite all these troubles, I think, I was born with a love for food. Shared meals was a big part of our family life and my parents loved good food, especially French and Mediterranean cuisine. When I was around thirty, after a divorce, psychotherapy helped me to overcome my eating disorders. From then on, I was able to enjoy food a lot more.  Then I met my Italian husband in Goa and we settled there in 1996. My husband loves Italian food so I started to cook seriously. When our son was born in 1999, I saw healthy nourishment of my family as one of my duties as a mother. However, at this point I was still busy writing a novel. I still think that Finding Green Gold, my first book, was not so bad but no publisher wanted it. When my husband saw that I needed another creative outlet, he suggested writing a book about Mediterranean Cooking in India. After struggling with a novel for many years, this was like a walk in the park. For the first time I put all my knowledge about cooking and food into writing and I immediately found a publisher and received an international prize. I think at this point I truly started to love food and writing about cooking.

What would you recommend regarding food to your readers?

Learn about food because we are what we eat. This sounds like such a commonplace today but that does not make it any less true. Ignorance leads to failure and unhappiness in every walk of life. Knowledge gives you the keys to manage your life. Thanks to the Internet, we can research anything we want. We can access levels of information that we could not imagine 20 years ago. When I was young, knowledge was mostly found in expensive books or public libraries. I don´t know how many hundreds of books I have borrowed from libraries. Nowadays, all you need is a smart phone although I prefer to read on a big screen. Honestly, I am a maniac reader. I consume two or three books a week. Reading for pleasure means for me that I have a printed book in my hand. I only read on the computer for research. But many people nowadays love their tablets for reading. When you know about food, you can use it to balance the functioning of your brain. Of course my book would help you a lot too in this regard.

How have you used food – and how are you using it – as a happy maker?

Food is one of the few things everybody does on a daily basis. Luckily, I understood early on in life that enjoying food can be a way to feel good without much effort. Even when I was suffering from Anorexia Nervosa, I enjoyed food – heavily restricted of course. When the family sat down to Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake), a German tradition, I made sure to get the biggest piece of my favourite cake. But instead of eating two or three pieces like the rest of the family, I only ate one – and of course I hardly ate anything for dinner after this indulgence. I believe, food is one of the things that our bodies exchange with the world around us – like air. When you take in food, you allow your surroundings to penetrate into your body. This can happen in many ways and the process is different for everybody. When I notice, that I eat too quickly I know something is wrong. Then I try to focus on the food, to really taste what is in my mouth. I also believe you can judge people by the way they are eating. Picky eaters really choose what they want in their life. I am not a picky eater, but my son is. He has a very strong personality and is able to set clear limits. I am more of a go-lucky person. I try everything and when I get something bad, I book it under experience. With this attitude I have collected a wealth of experience, not only regarding food. What I can say after all these years is: A yummy morsel can deliver instant happiness, no matter what. Stuffing yourself will never make you happy.

What is better for staying healthy and happy: vegetarian or non-vegetarian food?

Honestly, I do not believe in a vegetarian lifestyle. This is not so much due to research for the book but to personal experience. During the course of my life I have tried several times for long periods to live as a vegetarian. But after a while I felt like eating meat again – and I delivered several stories my family keeps laughing about. When I was in my twenties, I had a vegetarian spell. Instead of the traditional Christmas turkey, my mother had prepared a vegetarian dish especially for me. After the festive dinner, the leftovers of the turkey were placed into the kitchen. I could not help myself and started secretly to pick the meat from the bones. Of course my mother caught me in the act. Even today, this story is regularly told at Christmas dinners and everybody laughs about me. Jokes aside, I believe a vegetarian, especially a vegan lifestyle, harbours the danger of a serious lack of vitamin B12. This vitamin is only found in animal products. Synthetic vitamin B12 can never replace the real thing. Vitamins are highly complicated and simply cannot be replicated by chemical procedures. I write in my book about the difference between natural and synthetic vitamins and about the dangers of synthetic vitamins. Of course, I would prefer not to kill and I am very sorry for all the animals that give their lives for my sake. However, I think human beings are designed to consume all kinds of food and that it is much easier to feed yourself in a healthy way if you allow yourself to eat everything. One could easily live without meat though – without seafood is much more problematic.

What is your ultimate comfort food?

Many: If I need something instantly, a piece of dark, good quality chocolate works fine with me. When I have my own truffles in the fridge, this takes care of it. I also love a simple fried egg with the egg yolk oozing over buttered, crunchy whole-wheat toast. I also love a good avocado, just sliced and eaten with a spoon. When it comes to meals, I have to say that I love lasagna and pizza – but this involves some serious cooking and planning and I reserve this usually for the weekends.

Is there a style of cooking that you cannot stand?

Of course the style of cooking influences the way I enjoy my food. I don´t like stuff that swims in oil of questionable quality. I do not like deep fried stuff from restaurants because I do not know how old is the fat they are using. When I go into a restaurant, I always try to sneak a look in the kitchen or I try to see how the cook looks. If the cook is fat, I get suspicious. I believe, fat cooks deliver dishes that make you fat. I do not expect the cook to be super skinny but I do not like to eat food prepared by seriously obese people.

Which Indian dish is your favourite? Do you like Goan cuisine?

I love dal makhani with roti. For me, this is India on a plate and I adore this simple meal. In Goa, I love the prawn curry with red, Goan rice. The fact is, that the Goan cuisine is split into Hindu and Catholic cuisine. I prefer the lighter, Hindu versions because for me the Catholic Goan cuisine tends to be a bit too heavy. There is nothing wrong with a good pork sorpotel once in a while, but not on a daily basis.

Are there wrong beliefs regarding food that you would like to set right?

Yes. I think that butter has been maligned by the food industry for decades to push the sale of inferior margarine and questionable vegetable oils. I believe butter – and ghee of course – is one of the healthy fats that every human being needs for their well-being. I believe, eating butter does not influence cholesterol levels and it does not lead to coronary heart disease – although many doctors still preach this.  I believe, that new scientific studies prove that butter is good for us. Going into details would be too much for this interview but I urge everybody to check out the facts.

Name some kinds of food that everybody should eat, please.

Healthy kinds of fat, especially olive oil and butter: I believe, extra virgin olive oil is one of the most healthy ingredients we can find. I have lived in Greece for two years and during this time I lost a lot of weight without dieting. I believe, eating first class Greek olive oil was one of the main reasons for this weight loss – next to being in love. Butter is a good source for vitamins, minerals and healthy fatty acids. Fat is so important for our emotional well-being because our nerve cells create feelings by transmitting impulses. These nerve cells are embedded into fat. Our brains consist mostly of fat. I believe that´s why eating unhealthy fat furthers depression

Coconut: Like butter, coconut has been called unhealthy because its fatty acids are mostly saturated. However, coconut water, milk and coconut oil are one of the healthiest things we can eat. Its fat can be easily absorbed by the body because it resembles our own fatty acids. The water is better than any artificial isotonic drink. The milk can be used in sweets and curries and is super healthy. I love to use coconut oil for baking. Especially for allergic people it can replace other fats.

Seafood, especially fatty fish like mackerels or salmon: Only seafood provides omega-3 that our bodies can use. Omega-3 is essential for our emotional well-being. Unfortunately, our bodies cannot use the omega-3 of plant sources very well. I believe, everybody should eat as much seafood as possible, although our oceans are over fished. We need to find sustainable ways to farm seafood in a way, that is good for the animals and human beings. In Bavaria, a biological prawn farm close to Munich is a huge success.

Nuts, especially almonds: Nuts deliver minerals, proteins, healthy fat and a lot of fibre. Studies show that slim people eat more nuts than overweight people. Nuts, especially almonds, are loaded with vitamin E and antioxidants. I try to eat a handful of almonds every day.

Legumes of all kinds: Lentils and rajma beans belong to the foods everybody should eat. They deliver complex carbohydrates that our bodies absorb slowly. They also contain plenty of proteins and fibre. I tend to suffer from constipation. For this reason I love legumes. A good helping of dal with roti or hummus with whole-wheat bread makes my belly happy.

Which kinds of food should be avoided?

Unhealthy fat: Polyunsaturated vegetable oils of questionable quality. You find these oils in every supermarket for a cheap price. If you can afford it, avoid them. This is the stuff that clogs arteries and leads to obesity and coronary heart disease. It also makes your brain cells work sluggishly.

Deep fried food from fastfood chains: I do not want to name any, but this stuff should be forbidden. I believe, many people suffer from obesity because of this health disasters.

Packaged cookies and biscuits with plenty of chemicals: This is a tough one. I hardly ever eat cookies or biscuits from the supermarket but my son and my husbands love them. I always read the labels before buying any of them and I stick to the brands that use whole-wheat and do not show long lists of added chemicals and artificial aromas.

Cheap beer: widely consumed Indian beer contains glycerine as a preservative. This is not healthy at all to drink because it can cause severe allergic reactions. As a native Bavarian, I believe that beer should be kept pure. It is not a product with a long shelf live but should be consumed soon after brewing.

However, I also believe in sinful moments. If you feel you need something absolutely unhealthy, go for it and enjoy it. Just don´t make it a daily habit. Giving in to our desires makes us happy too.

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KORNELIA SANTORO has followed the cutting edge of food knowledge since she was a teenager.  Born in Ansbach, a small town in Bavaria, she worked as a journalist for a decade for a newspaper in Regensburg.

She met her Italian husband while riding an Enfield Bullet through India. The couple is settled in Goa. After the birth of her son, Kornelia started writing cookbooks. She loves to experiment in the kitchen and explore the human relationship with food in a profound way. Her first two cookbooks, Kornelia’s Kitchen – Mediterranean Cooking for India and Kornelia’s Kitchen 2 – Cooking for Allergies, have both won the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. She also writes for media in India and Europe. Kornelia Santoro believes that food can be a gate to heaven or a door to hell: It all depends on you and what you allow into your body.