Nourish The Body & Feed The Soul

One of my earliest food memories in Sri Lanka was when I was nine years old, stuck in my neighbor’s mango tree. As a tomboy, I enjoyed climbing and adventure, and I simply couldn’t resist the temptation of hundreds of ripe mangos hanging in my neighbor’s yard. Though I had been caught many times before, I had thought this time would be different, until I heard the growl of the neighbor’s dog at the base of the tree. I was trapped there for hours.

“Shame on you!” my neighbor hollered at me and then told my mom, “Your daughter’s stealing food again!”

That’s around the time my mom began to teach me how to cook, which included traditional Sri Lankan dishes and pickled mangoes. One of my first lessons was scraping coconuts and learning how to gather the three different textured coconut milks out of one coconut. Another lesson was cutting vegetables while sitting on the floor. The technique passed on for hundreds of years involved holding a long knife in-between my toes and cutting onions, chilis and other vegetables in an upward motion.

At first I didn’t do very well cooking. I had a tendency to use too much salt. But as I observed my mother, aunties and the servants who assisted us, I learned how to appreciate the different ingredients and spices used to bring food alive. I would smell, touch and feel everything, including curry leaves, turmeric, paprika, bay leaves, cumin, saffron, cardamom and on and on… Every spice had a special purpose in the dishes that were served.

Little did I know that years later, when I moved to America in 1974, my fascination for cooking would become my livelihood, and I would be known as The Curry Diva.

My first culinary adventure was co-ownership of the award-winning Sri Lanka Curry House restaurant. As the first Sri Lanka restaurant in the United States, we opened our doors in NE Minneapolis in 1976, and then eventually transferred to Uptown Minneapolis. Later, I published my cookbook, Fire and Spice: the Cuisine of Sri Lanka, co-authored by K. Winegar. I also opened up the Curry Leaf Deli on Grand Avenue in St. Paul.

My career highs are memories I cherish, and they soothe my soul on a daily basis. They include cooking for Deepak Chopra events, celebrities like Billy Crystal, and famous musicians, such as UB40 and Black Sabbath.

Real and Inspiring - Photo of Heather Jansz

The food industry is laborious at best. Ask anyone who has served in any role and they will agree. With that being said, food is my passion and purpose for these reasons:

1. Serving food is an act of love.

I have always felt this overwhelming need to give to others. I am grateful for my cooking talent, because I can easily fulfill my soul’s desire to give. There is so much work that goes into the preparation and planning of feeding others. It consumes my thoughts and takes hours of shopping throughout the city to find the perfect and freshest ingredients.

Seeing people happy while eating inspires me! The laborious act of nourishing others becomes my language of love because all of the work is worthwhile when seeing people enjoy their meals.

2. Serving food is an art and an incredible adventure.

Along with the inspiration to make people happy, I am constantly on the quest to try something new and different. That’s what fueled me as a child when I watched my mother and aunts cooking. I wanted to be creative and think out of the box. I asked myself, how can I make this better? How can I make this healthier? How can I blend the spices to surprise others?

I experience instant gratification when one of my clients tries something new and delicious they haven’t tried before. In the 70’s when we opened the Sri Lanka Curry House, we introduced a whole new world of flavor to the Minneapolis scene, and I continue that pursuit to this day. My desire is to teach others the art of cooking so they can turn around and reap the benefits of it for themselves and others.

3. Serving food can foster physical healing.

Food is miraculous! The healing properties of food are underrated, and I am passionate about serving the healthiest ingredients to deliver nutrients that nourish the body. The effects of eating well are immediate. Lentils are rich with protein and can lift your mood from the folate which synthesizes serotonin and dopamine; coconut oil has special fats that have been found to boost metabolism; ginger helps with digestion; curry leaves and turmeric have anti-inflammatory properties; and garlic has been found to boost the immune system. I enjoy roasting and grinding spices to release all of the oils, so that it can activate all of the senses. They are the sweet, sour, salt, bitter, pungent and astringent flavors that offer healing properties.

I truly believe that food can easily be integrated into the Ayurveda lifestyle and system of preventive medicine, which was developed more than 5,000 years ago. If you have an ailment, I am confident there are ways to feel relief through proper food and nutrition.

4. Serving food can heal the soul of a person, community or nation.

While the healing properties and nutrients of food are important, it is more important to realize the power of food to heal the soul. Food has the power of connecting and uniting people through delicious cuisine and through the act of generosity. The intentions and motivations of feeding others can heal relationships, communities and nations. One can appreciate the cultures and differences of others through the sharing of food.

Giving food through simple acts of kindness can go a long way. Prepare a home-cooked meal for someone who is ill, or plan a potluck at work to build and foster a work community. While I feel fulfilled serving food to others in my own circle of influence, I hope people can appreciate the power of food as a gift to bring healing and happiness to their lives and the lives of others.

I will never “retire” from my work and purpose. I will continue to enjoy teaching, catering, and offering “pop-up” dinners at various restaurants, including Our Kitchen in South Minneapolis.

My hope is that I’ve inspired you to see food differently so that it can be your language of love. Allow the preparation and gifting of food to nourish and heal your mind, body, soul, and greater community.

Heather Jansz - Minneapolis, MN

Interviewed and written by Alyce Renee, Founder of Real & Inspiring

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Photo Credit: Tom McConnell

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