Author Nishanga Bliss Photo: Stephan Hawk

“We Americans are eating ourselves to death” sounds like a total Debbie Downer way to begin a book, doesn’t it? But the recently released cookbook Real Food All Year, by Berkeley’s Nishanga Bliss, offers an opportunity to explore seasonal eating in tandem with the principles of Chinese medicine and holistic nutrition in a manner that isn’t overly negative or earnest.

Bliss, a professor of Chinese medicine at the Acupuncture and Integrative Medicine College (AIMC) in downtown Berkeley, where she works as an acupuncturist, nutritionist and herbalist, peppers her book, published by local press New Harbinger, with her professional expertise. She focuses on the healing potential of seasonal eating and cooking to support the health of key organs and overall energy.

So readers will find cheery chapters such as “Feeling Spring,” which encourages eaters to embrace the appearance of fresh, new greens at the market, cleanse, detoxify the liver, and cook for shorter times, with less oil, and lower temperatures than in winter. 

Similarly, “Celebrating Summer” focuses on the abundance of fresh produce, heart health, and quick, light cooking, along with raw foods. “Reaping the Rewards of Autumn” hones in on immune-boosting foods and lung care, and cooking methods that use less water than in summer and longer cook times. “Settling into Winter” welcomes the slow-cooked, hearty fare of what some think of as the cruelest season, and considers the importance of our kidneys to overall health, well-being, and energy. Along with recipes for each season, there are also tips on techniques such as sprouting and fermenting and advice on how to keep a GMO-free kitchen.

Bliss, 44, who legally changed her name 20 years ago from Susan Carlton while visiting an ashram in India, lives with her husband and son in West Berkeley.

The UC Berkeley alum shared her food philosophy — and some fall recipes — with Berkeleyside this week.

A fall bouquet from Bliss’ cookbook. Illustration: Sheila Metcalf-Tobin
A fall bouquet from Bliss’ cookbook. Illustration: Sheila Metcalf-Tobin

What prompted your book and what’s its take-home message?

I felt like no one was connecting the dots between the sources of food (sustainability, ethical meat, farming practices), health (including seasonality and traditional food preparation techniques, such as using bone broth, fermentation, and sprouting), and Chinese medical and Western approaches to nutrition. The research I did, and the experience of writing the book, reinforced my idea that personal and planetary health are inseparable, and by eating and cooking with the seasons we remember our ties to the rhythms of nature, connecting us to the source of our vitality.

Why did you start the food blog, Gastronicity?

I was doing a lot of teaching about food and nutrition and I needed a place to post things and refer students and clients to, and the food blog met that need perfectly. My readers are a mix of food folks, those interested in health and sustainability issues, students, and clients.

What’s the October Unprocessed challenge and why do you do it?

I met Andrew Wilder of Eating Rules, the organizer of October Unprocessed, at a food blogger’s conference in Seattle and really resonated with him, as he was one of the few people there with a big focus on health.  The challenge involves eating only unprocessed food (basically food you can make in your own kitchen) for the month.  It is not much different from the way I usually eat. But I wanted to spread the word and support Andrew. It’s also a chance to root out some processed food that has made its way into my diet somehow.

Do most of the folks you encounter in Berkeley eat as you recommend?

Believe it or not, I know people who live in Berkeley who eat at McDonald’s (on University Avenue) every single day. I find that a lot of folks are quite savvy about food, but because so much misinformation about food had been put out by the government, mainstream nutritionists, the media, and the food industry, many people are still in the grips of various nutrition fallacies, such as the lipid hypothesis, which makes people think that fat is bad. And the idea that eating salt is bad for you, that vegetarian and vegan diets are best for health (Chinese medicine places great value on the health value of animal foods, but needs to concern itself more with the sources and methods of raising animals), that coffee is bad for you — even that you must drink 8 glasses of water a day.

Sauerkraut: a popular fermented food. Photo: Nishanga Bliss

Fermented foods seem to have developed a cult following — witness this summer’s sold-out event at the Cultured Pickle Shop. Why the recent revival in this ancient practice?

It’s part of the interest in reclaiming the food system, of remembering how to cook, and relearning habits in the kitchen that our grandmothers and great-grandmothers knew, like cooking with the whole animal, making bone broths and stocks, and using condiments to enhance flavor and health. Fermentation is especially powerful because it is not only one of the oldest culinary techniques, it actually increases rather than decreases the nutritional value of food, and it involves harnessing the power of bacteria, which live on us and in us and compriss an important component of our immune and digestive systems.

Who are your kindred spirits in town?

Alex Hozven at Cultured is a friend — we go way back — I remember when she told me she was going to start a sauerkraut business. I was like: Say what? I call her pickles “pharmaceutical grade.” She blows me away with her culinary prowess. A favorite: Indian pickled limes.

Jessica Prentice at Three Stone Hearth: her book, Full Moon Feast, was the inspiration for mine, down to the seasonal format. I learned so many important cooking techniques and concepts from her.

Novella Carpenter for getting the word out about urban farming to a huge audience and her unforgetable story in Farm City, about raising pigs in Oakland on dumpster-dived fish guts from Chinatown, and then transforming them into delicious charcuterie.

Jim Montgomery of Green Faerie Farm: 20 years ago he told me that he only ate meat he raised himself. No one was even talking about that at the time. He’s a true pioneer of urban agriculture.

Michael Pollan is my hero; he’s an amazing example of the huge impact one person can have on the food world.

Slaw and soup for fall. Photo: Nishanga Bliss

Can you point readers to some fall recipes from your site?

Spicy flavors are good to eat in the fall, as they circulate lung energy and help prevent colds. I’m making a batches of curtido these days to eat with carnitas or scrambled eggs.  I’ll be demo-ing this recipe and offering samples at Full Belly Farm’s Hoes Down Festival this weekend.

The curried apple cabbage slaw and kabocha white bean soup combo are both favorite, immune-boosting foods and highlight cooking techniques.

What’s next for you on the food front?

I’m throwing myself into the fight to pass Prop 37, the GMO labeling initiative, which is on the November ballot and which could have a huge impact on the food industry and the face of agriculture around the globe.

Nishanga Bliss teaches classes on Chinese medicine and seasonal nutrition/cooking at AIMC starting Oct. 11, at Three Stone Hearth on Oct. 26, and recently sung the praises of fermented foods at Biofuel Oasis.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Michael Pollan: New food rules, but no need to be neurotic (11.02.11)
Jim Montgomery, Green Faerie Farm (10.29.10)
Alex Hozven & Kevin Farley, Cultured Pickle Shop (07.09.10)
Berkeley Bites: Jessica Prentice (06.04.10)
Berkeley Bites: Novella Carpenter (04.30.10)

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