Into The Mouths Of Babes: The Foods That Bind As Mother's Day approaches, food writer Monica Bhide recalls the ups and downs of her young son's adventuresome tastes. As he got older, he shied away from dishes that his peers deemed "weird." But a kids cooking class showed him he wasn't alone — and led to renewed requests for Mom's signature shrimp curry.

Into The Mouths Of Babes: The Foods That Bind

Spicy onion rings are among the many foods that Monica Bhide's young son Jai sampled while traveling with her in India. The foods that connected mother and son made Jai feel "different" from other kids as he got older, and he shied away from them. But Mom didn't give up. Simon & Schuster hide caption

toggle caption
Simon & Schuster

Spicy onion rings are among the many foods that Monica Bhide's young son Jai sampled while traveling with her in India. The foods that connected mother and son made Jai feel "different" from other kids as he got older, and he shied away from them. But Mom didn't give up.

Simon & Schuster

By the time he was 6, my son Jai had amazing eating habits. He wanted to sample every food he could get his hands on. "Oh, this mushroom is so different from the shiitakes we had last week," he would say thoughtfully, or, "It isn't called an ice cream when it is in this form, Mama, it is a sorbet." I would beam with pride when he could not only name all of the vegetables, herbs and spices in my cart, but also would help me pick out the ripest seasonal fruits by sniffing the melons and carefully inspecting the fruit for bruises.

Monica Bhide's son Jai became self-conscious about his favorite foods, but a children's cooking class taught him that he wasn't alone in his adventuresome ways. Bhide says Jai loved learning how to make sushi -- and gobbled up every piece he'd made in the class. Courtesy of Scott Homstead hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of Scott Homstead

Monica Bhide's son Jai became self-conscious about his favorite foods, but a children's cooking class taught him that he wasn't alone in his adventuresome ways. Bhide says Jai loved learning how to make sushi -- and gobbled up every piece he'd made in the class.

Courtesy of Scott Homstead

As Mother's Day approaches, I was thinking of his favorite foods and how his tastes were shaped. He would travel to India with me, chat with local vegetable vendors and try unfamiliar treats such as spicy onion rings. Back home in Virginia, he would eat dishes such as rice pudding that connected him with his beloved grandparents. He would ask for seconds of cauliflower and Brussels sprouts.

He knew what he loved to eat and wasn't afraid to show it.

However, it was more than just about the food. We would spend time shelling peas and talking about everything from why Buzz Lightyear was bald to why people got sick. Food connected us.

Then he started school.

When his new friends came over, they would be curious about his adventurous nature and sometimes unintentionally poke fun at his ways: "I cannot believe you eat salmon," or, "I would never eat Thai curry. Yuck!" or, "Why don't you order pizza like everyone else? Why does your mom have to make it?" I could see the hurt in his eyes, and he began to change the way he ate. Now he asked for fries, for "white foods" with no spices, for sodas. I could see longing on his face as he looked at the curries on the table, but he would push them away for fear of being "different."

Even worse were the well-intentioned parents. "Jai, show my daughter how to eat like you do." Jai would almost imperceptibly cringe. He began to sulk and be upset at the very mention of food. Parents would lecture me on how lucky I was that I did not have a picky eater. My poor son would listen to this and say it made him "weird."

About The Author

An engineer turned food writer, Monica Bhide writes about food and its effect on our lives. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Food & Wine, Prevention, Cooking Light, Health and Self. Her latest book is Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen (Simon & Schuster). Read more at her blog, A Life Of Spice.

I was heartbroken. I tried offering him what he said he wanted, but supplemented those dishes with what I knew he loved. Yet he shied away from his old favorites.

I was wondering what I could do to nip this in the bud before it became a way of life.

The answer came through a story I wrote about children's cooking classes in my area. I took my son along for a lesson in making sushi. Jai had never tasted sushi before, and was completely entranced by the stories and the gentle ways of the young chef who was instructing the class. The class began with a brief introduction to sushi and its condiments (wasabi and ginger), and then moved on to making sushi with the chef. "What fish would you like on your sushi?" asked the chef, and when the kids around the sushi counter replied, "Eel and salmon," I knew instantly that Jai would fit right in.

As they began to eat the sushi, Jai pointed to the tiny bright orange balls in a small cup on the counter. "What are these?" To which a young gentleman on his left replied, "Fish eggs. Do you know each one is like a whole person?" Jai's brown eyes twinkled, and he laughed out loud. He ate every single piece of sushi that he made that day. I could tell he loved that there were other kids like him who enjoyed different foods and were not afraid to show it.

Did You Know ... ?

Green cardamom is used in various forms around the world: People brew it in coffee, add it to liquors and perfumes, saute it with rice and meats, and in India it is eaten raw, whole (pod and seeds and all), as a digestive aid after a meal. It is also sold covered in vark, an edible silver foil, that makes it look like a small, shiny stone.

On the way back, we snuggled in the cab and admired the beautiful buildings in downtown Washington, D.C.

"Mama, I had fun today," he said sweetly. Then he added, "Can you make shrimp curry tonight? I miss your food." Jai has a younger sibling now, and I hope my shrimp curry will be his favorite, too.

Indian Onion Rings With Chaat Masala

Several fast food places in India serve these light, crispy rings on a large metal rod (like a kitchen paper towel holder). They are easy to make, fun to eat and wonderful when it is raining outside. I like to use all-purpose flour, but you can also use the traditional chickpea flour. This recipe is from Modern Spice by Monica Bhide (Simon & Schuster April 2009).

Indian Onion Rings With Chaat Masala
Monica Bhide for NPR

Makes 4 to 6 servings

2 medium red onions, peeled and sliced into 1/2-inch thick rounds

1 cup all-purpose flour

Salt to taste

1/2 teaspoon red chili powder

1 cup club soda

1/2 teaspoon carom seeds*

1 tablespoon dried fenugreek leaves*

1 teaspoon vegetable oil

2 cups plus 1 teaspoon vegetable oil (for frying)

Store-bought Indian chaat masala,*

Separate the sliced onion into rings, discarding the very small rings and hard center part (save these for another purpose).

In a bowl, combine the flour, salt, red chili powder, carom seeds, fenugreek and the 1 teaspoon vegetable oil. Add the club soda, a little at a time, and mix well to ensure that there are no lumps. The batter should be thicker than a pancake batter. If the batter becomes too thin, add an additional tablespoon of flour.

Add the onions to the batter and make sure they are well-coated.

Heat the oil in a deep pan to 350 degrees.

Add a few onion rings at a time to the hot oil and fry, turning them in the oil until they are golden brown on all sides, 2 to 3 minutes.

Using a slotted spoon, remove the rings from the oil and place on a double layer of paper towels to drain.

Continue until all the rings are done. The temperature of the oil may fall between batches, so allow time for the oil to reheat.

Serve dusted with chaat masala.

*Carom seeds, fenugreek and chaat masala all are available online or at an Indian grocery.

Tomato And Coconut Fish Curry

Many cooks have a signature dish, something that they are really proud of. This is mine. I have been cooking it for as long as I can remember. It is a favorite with adults and kids alike. My dad once told me it was his favorite. I cannot tell you how happy I was, since he has discerning tastes. He made it for me once, and it was quite interesting. "I won’t add the mustard seeds, since I don’t like mustard. I don't have any curry leaves, so they won't go in, either. I will saute some onions first and then add tomatoes, and I prefer ground coriander, so I will add that. But you know, I do add the coconut milk, so it is just like yours," he said. For Jai, I make it with shrimp. This recipe is adapted from Modern Spice by Monica Bhide (Simon & Schuster 2009).

Courtesy of Monica Bhide
Tomato And Coconut Fish Curry
Courtesy of Monica Bhide

Makes 4 servings

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 teaspoon black mustard seeds*

10 fresh curry leaves*

1-inch piece peeled fresh ginger, grated

3 garlic cloves, crushed

1 small green serrano chili, chopped

1 large tomato, chopped

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon red chili powder

1⁄4 teaspoon salt

1 pound catfish fillets, cut into bite-size pieces (or 1 pound medium shrimp, cleaned)

1⁄2 of a 13 1/2-ounce can coconut milk (3⁄4 cup plus 2 tablespoons)

In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the mustard seeds. As soon as they crackle, add the curry leaves, ginger, garlic and chili. Saute for a few seconds to combine.

Add the tomato. Cook gently for 10 to 12 minutes, until the tomato is soft and the oil begins to leave the side of the mixture. You can add some water if the tomato begins to stick. I sometimes add a quarter-cup of water and cover the pan for 5 to 6 minutes. This helps cook the tomatoes faster. Then uncover it and continue to cook until all the water evaporates.

Stir in the turmeric, chili powder and salt. Cook for 1 minute.

Stir in the fish and cook for 5 minutes.

Add the coconut milk. Let the mixture come to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the fish is tender. Serve immediately.

*Black mustard seeds and curry leaves are available online or at an Indian grocery.

Roasted Cauliflower With Fennel

I have made cauliflower every which way: I’ve blanched it, sauteed it, boiled it, mashed it, deep fried it and eaten it raw. Until I read about it on, though, I never knew I could roast it. This recipe really brings out the richness of the cauliflower and matches it perfectly with the robustness of the spices. I use my fennel rub along with a few other spices. If you have sea salt, it works really well with this recipe. The cauliflower tends to shrink when roasted, so one head of cauliflower is about right for 2 servings. The recipe is adapted from Modern Spice by Monica Bhide (Simon & Schuster 2009).

Courtesy of Charmian Christie
Roasted Cauliflower With Fennel
Courtesy of Charmian Christie

Makes 2 servings

1 medium head cauliflower (about 1 1⁄4 to 1 1⁄2 pounds)

1⁄4 cup vegetable oil

1 1⁄2 tablespoons fennel-chili rub (recipe follows)

1⁄2 tablespoon coriander seeds, crushed

1⁄4 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Cut the cauliflower into 1-inch florets and place in a large bowl. Drizzle with the oil and toss with your hands to coat each floret.

In a small bowl, combine the dry rub, coriander and salt. Add the spice mixture to the cauliflower. Once again, no tool is better than your hands. Get in there and make sure all of the florets are well coated.

Place the cauliflower on a baking sheet and spread out evenly in a single layer. Don’t worry if it is a little crowded. If you really cannot fit it on one sheet, use two.

Bake for about 15 minutes. Stir and bake for another 15 minutes or until the cauliflower is well browned and cooked through. Serve hot.

Fennel-Chili Dry Rub

This is a wonderful rub for meats and fish. While I prefer it as a dry rub, you can add lemon juice or a neutral oil such as grapeseed to make it wet if you prefer. Use the rub on your choice of meat (or cauliflower), allow it to marinate for a few minutes and then grill, roast or saute. As with any spice, if you are going to store this for a long time, ensure it is still flavorful before using. Use your nose -- if you can smell the spices, it is still good to go. If not, toss it and make a fresh batch. This rub lasts for up to two months in a sealed container.

Makes about 1/4 cup

1⁄4 cup fennel seeds

4 whole dried red chilies

1⁄2 teaspoon ground peppercorns (use a medley of different colored peppercorns)

Heat a small dry skillet over medium heat. Add the fennel seeds. Toss until the seeds are fragrant. This takes just a minute, so watch them carefully and keep tossing the seeds in the pan or they will burn.

Add the chilies and toss for another 5 seconds.

Remove from heat and allow to cool.

Grind to a coarse powder in a spice grinder. Add the peppercorns and mix well.

Store, covered.

Rice Pudding And Mango Parfait

This dish is not only tasty but also makes a striking presentation. I have served it at many dinner parties just after guests have announced, "I could not eat another bite of anything. I am so full." And then they have proceeded to polish off this entire dessert. The recipe uses cardamom seeds. Use your fingers to coax the tiny seeds out of the pod. Pound them gently using a mortar and pestle, or put them in a heavy-duty plastic bag and pound them with a hammer. If you have a mango that is firm, peel it and then use a vegetable peeler to create thin mango slices. Arrange the slices on a plate and place a scoop of the rice pudding in the center of the mango "carpaccio." The recipe is adapted from Modern Spice by Monica Bhide (Simon & Schuster 2009).

Rice Pudding And Mango Parfait
Courtesy of Stephanie Stiavetti

Makes 6 servings

3 cups whole milk

2 to 4 tablespoons sweetened condensed milk*

1⁄4 cup white basmati rice, rinsed and drained

1 teaspoon cardamom seeds, crushed

1 ripe mango, peeled and diced

In a deep saucepan, bring the whole milk and condensed milk to a boil over medium heat. Stir constantly to prevent scorching.

Reduce the heat to medium-low. Add the rice and cardamom and mix well. Continue to cook for about 50 minutes, until the milk has reduced by half and you get a creamy consistency. Stir frequently while cooking.

Remove from the heat and allow to come to room temperature.

Refrigerate, covered, for at least an hour.

When ready to serve, spoon some pudding into a wine glass, layer with some mango and add another layer of rice pudding. Serve immediately.

* Use 4 tablespoons of condensed milk if you like rice pudding really sweet. With 2 tablespoons, it is sweet but not overwhelmingly so.