Feeding the Hungry Ghost: Life, Faith, and What to Eat for Dinner

‘Life, Faith and what to eat for dinner’ promises the cover of Ellen Kanner’s book, Feeding the Hungry Ghost.

Well, I’m down with the latter part of that sentence but I confess I felt highly sceptical about the first part.

I’m not big on religion. I won’t go into the reasons for this, but suffice it to say that in the last few years I’ve experienced a crisis of faith and I’m now deeply entrenched in the atheist’s camp. And spiritualism? Don’t we have enough of the hippy clichés and tree hugger stereotypes as it is?

Ellen Kanner
Ellen Kanner, author of Feeding the Hungry Ghost, is the Meatless Mondays blogger at Huff Post and a contributer to publications including Bon Appetit, Vegetarian Times, and Every Day with Rachael Ray.

“You can keep your spirituality”, I thought; just give me some new recipes to play with!

I needn’t have worried.

As much a memoir as a cookbook, Kanner’s prose is immediately endearing and engaging – even the most heart-wrenching episodes (the retelling of the death of her friend Patrick reduced me to tears) are peppered with dry wit and the author takes us on a meandering path from hurricanes in Miami and treks through the Sahara to street festivals in Tokyo. For a travel junky and food enthusiast like me, it was perfect!

The Spiritual Stuff

The hungry ghosts of the title are a Tao concept- souls who will never be satisfied, they are doomed to eternal hunger. They are symbols of compulsion, addiction, and greed.

Sound familiar? Kanner thinks so. We are all hungry ghosts, always seeking more- money, possessions, food. We eat and eat until our waistlines can take no more and yet we don’t take the time to properly nourish either our bodies or our souls.

So that’s the issue. But what is the solution? After reading this book, I’m inclined to think that the answer lies in a bowl of soup.

Forget your tree hugging; Kanner advocates a much more practical solution for feeding our inner hungry ghosts.

Feeding the Hungry Ghost
Feeding the Hungry Ghost: Life, Faith, and What to Eat for Dinner

Avoiding processed grains, buying seasonal produce and ditching the ready meals, and cooking as a family, or even as a community, are encouraged. We need to be more mindful in general, and what better way to start than to be more aware of what and how we eat? To help us along, she has provided a plethora of dishes from around the globe to whet our appetites.

The Food Stuff

The author’s enthusiasm for fresh produce and exotic flavours is infectious and throughout the book we are entertained by the tales of what inspired each dish, from the rice in the Sahara recipe (see recipe below), adapted from a dish Kanner helped cook with non-English speaking women in Morocco (who needs a common language when you have food, right?), to the millet dish inspired by her grandmother’s love of Middle Eastern flavours.

I’m particularly looking forward to trying out her recipe for Ful, an Egyptian fava bean dish (not something I’d ever heard of before!), and Farrotto with Greens, Pine Nuts and Currants, which appears to be a healthier version of traditional risotto.

While these recipes sound pretty exotic (well, they do to a girl from Glasgow!), rest assured that the majority of the ingredients Kanner uses – save maybe a few of the spices – can be easily found in any supermarket these days.

Ellen Kanner’s Farrotto. Photo credit: Ellen Kanner.

The appearance throughout these recipes of fresh herbs, spices, dried fruit, and nuts ensures that even the most diehard meat eater will not feel short-changed when it comes to flavour or texture, and the emphasis on nourishment and health in so many of Kanner’s dishes is the ideal antidote for vegans who have fallen into the trap of basing their diets around processed meat substitutes and junk food.

This is real food – just without the meat. Feeding the Hungry Ghost is a fairly wonderful balance of recipes, memories, musings, and gentle nudges to help us reconnect both with ourselves and with the earth. Even supposing you never make a single dish from the book; it’s still a great read. I recommend you try at least one though.And don’t believe me if I try to tell you that the chocolate cake recipe isn’t at the very top of today’s ‘to do’ list!

Ellen Kanner’s Rice in the Sahara Recipe 

Serves 4 to 6

1/2 cup slivered almonds

3 cups Stone Soup (see page 84 of Feeding the Hungry Ghost) or other vegetable broth or water

1 cup brown rice

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, sliced

Pinch of saffron

1/2 cup red lentils

1 cinnamon stick

1 teaspoon ground allspice

3 dried Medjool dates, chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper


Preheat the oven to 375°F. Pour the almonds in a shallow ovenproof pan and toast until they just turn golden and are fragrant, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer the almonds to a small bowl to cool.

In a medium saucepan, bring 2 cups of the vegetable broth to a boil over high heat. Add the rice, cover, and reduce the heat to low. Simmer just until the rice absorbs the liquid and leans toward tenderness, about 30 minutes. (It will continue cooking later.) Remove from the heat and let cool. (The rice can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for a day or two; bring to room temperature before proceeding with the recipe.)

In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and stir until evenly coated. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and cook about 20 minutes. The onion will still be pale and will have thrown off quite a lot of liquid. This is good. Add the saffron and raise the heat to medium.

Add the red lentils to the onions and stir to combine. Add the remaining 1 cup broth, cover again, and continue cooking. Red lentils cook speedily — 10 to 15 minutes. Check them after 12 minutes. They should be pale rosy and tender, not mushy.

Add the cinnamon stick to the onion-lentil mixture, and stir in the allspice, cooked rice, and dates. Season with plenty of salt and pepper.

Heat over medium heat for a few minutes, stirring to combine, until heated through. Just before serving, stir in the toasted almonds for a nice crunch.

From the book Feeding the Hungry Ghost by Ellen Kanner. Copyright © 2013. Reprinted with permission from New World Library!

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