Soul Food: spirituality and nutrition

Soul Food: spirituality and nutrition

Years ago, I spent a lot of time in an ashram. One of my jobs (besides less-glamorous stuff like cleaning toilets) was to cook in the kitchens. It was lovely. The food was simple, clean, pure; most of our meals were composed primarily of beans,rice and vegetables, but they tasted like the fare of five-star restaurants. I am convinced it was the serenity and open-heartedness of the people cooking, the melodic chants we sang as we stirred. The spirituality of the place entered the food – or maybe, we became more spiritual because of it.

In their well-known quote from Consuming Passions: The anthropology of eating, authors Peter Farb and George Armelagos note, “Food to a large extent is what holds a society together, and eating is closely linked to deep spiritual experiences.” Most religions and spiritual paths throughout history have some kind of ritual or rule related to food and eating. Fasting is one practice; in many spiritual traditions, the act of abstaining from food is thought to increase spiritual awareness, achieve the discipline necessary to resist temptations of the flesh, purify the body or atone for evil acts.

And when they do eat, devotees are mindful – even rigorous – in their choices. The Hindu dietary regimen, for example, thinks of food as belonging to one of three categories, depending upon its effect on the body and spirit. Tamasic food is overripe, spoiled, stale, processed or canned, and results in dullness, heaviness, sluggishness and lethargy. Rajasic food is spicy, pungent, hot or stimulating, and is related to overactivity, agitation and overstimulation. Sattvic foods – considered the most desirable – are pure, fresh and light, and leave us feeling refreshed, clear and alert. These (predictably enough) include fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. I think it’s moving and elegant that this ideal diet, the one mostly widely recommended for healing, was described in the Bhagavad Gita more than 2,000 years ago.

Other traditions have other rules. Buddhists aren’t necessarily vegetarians; Buddha was said to have instructed his disciples to accept whatever food was offered, and that to refuse an offering was to reject the giver (without helping the already-dead animal). Careful admonishments were given, however, to avoid eating carelessly: to eat mindlessly, or just for pleasure, is to be moved by selfish temptations.

In Judaism, kashrut is the set of laws defining appropriate foods (in English, it’s called kosher), but other, more subtle, spiritual rules also apply. Traditional Jewish teachings believe the body is a gift for which we are responsible; and on a very practical level, an early book of Jewish ethics writes, “It is not possible to understand and become wise in Torah and mitzvot when you are hungry or sickly or when one of your limbs hurts.”

So these are all interesting theories. But what exactly, as spiritual folk, do we eat? I asked two retreat centers on the Front Range to share some of their recipes with us, and they graciously agreed. So, for you, two renditions of true soul food.

Mediterranean Red Lentil and Spinach Stew

Serves 6 to 8


This lovely soup recipe exemplifies Shoshoni’s ( simple but beautiful cooking. Reprinted with permission from their book, Yoga Kitchen: Vegetarian Recipes from the Shoshoni Yoga Retreat, by Faith Stone and Rachael Guidry (Summertown, TN: Book Publishing Company, 2004). Get the book for more inspiration!

2 tablespoons ghee
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon ginger, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 teaspoons cumin, ground
2 teaspoons paprika
2 teaspoons coriander, ground
1 teaspoon cinnamon, ground
5 cups water
2 cups butternut squash, peeled and diced
1 cup dry red lentils
1 cup red bell pepper, diced
1 stalk celery, sliced
1 bunch spinach, washed, stemmed, and finely chopped
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
1/4 cup currants or pitted dates, chopped
3 tablespoons Bragg liquid aminos or soy sauce
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
1 to 2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne

1. Heat the ghee in a saucepan. Add the onion and saute until well browned and caramelized, about 10 minutes. Add the ginger and garlic and saute for 2 minutes. Stir in the cumin, paprika, coriander, and cinnamon. Add the water, squash, lentils, red bell peppers, and celery. Simmer uncovered until the lentils are tender, about 30 minutes.

2. Stir in the spinach, cilantro, currants, Bragg liquid aminos, vinegar, salt to taste, and cayenne. Simmer just long enough for the spinach to wilt. Serve hot.

Sunrise Ranch Winter Vegetable Soup

Serves 12


Joyce Karchere, executive chef at Sunrise Ranch (, makes these from a combination of organic root vegetables grown on their farm; apple juice made from Sunrise Ranch apples adds a little sweetness that lifts the earthy blend. (All other ingredients are also organic, needless to say.)

3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
7 1/2 cups combined equal amounts of carrots, winter squash, and yams (peeled and chopped)
3/4 cups onion, chopped
1 tablespoon peeled, sliced ginger-root
1 1/4 cups apple juice
2 tablespoons organic orange juice concentrate
1/2 tablespoon ground coriander
Pinch each of allspice and nutmeg
5 cups coconut milk (or 2.5 cups vegetable stock and 2.5 cups coconut milk)

1. Heat olive oil in a large pan. Saute carrots, squash, yams, onion and ginger for 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in juices and spices and enough coconut milk and/or stock to cover. Simmer until vegetables are soft, 25 to 30 minutes.

2. Transfer soup to a food processor and puree until smooth. Return to the pot, add the coconut milk and gently reheat. Season to taste with sea salt. Serve immediately, with millet patties, or hummus and pita.

Lisa Turner is a food writer, intuitive eating coach, and cooking and nutrition instructor at Bauman College of Nutrition and Culinary Arts in Boulder. Visit her websites at and

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