Exploring Indian Cuisine with Kids
No matter where your home is, in the cultural goldmine that is India, your kitchen has been instrumental in creating dishes familiar to your community and probably your spouse’s community, too. If you happen to be a Bengali married to a Punjabi living in Bangalore, your breakfast table has probably seen as many gobhi ke parathe as luchis and idli-sambhar. Here’s a quick guide through Indian cuisine, with an eye towards introducing it through recipes for kids.
Even people who aren’t foodies will know about the famed Bengali mishtis. To dip your toe into this sugary ocean, begin with the labongo latika: a crisp fried pastry with a moist filling of sugar, coconut and khoya, glazed with clove-flavoured sugar syrup. But there’s a long list of Bengali dessert goodness.
Working backwards, let’s venture into the mustard-scented Bengali main course. The myriad rivers of Bengal are home to several species of freshwater fish, making it the protein of choice in the region. Bengalis are fiercely particular about their fish, which you will learn if you ever hint that a Bengali chef replace the hilsa in a curry with ravas or pomfret!
Try this sneaky introduction for your kids: raw jackfruit curry that resembles meat in texture and flavour. But if jackfruit isn’t your thing, another gem from the Bengali kitchen is mochar ghonto — a unique, delicately spiced preparation of the banana flower. The purple bulb sitting in your vegetable basket is likely to pique enough curiosity for the dish to be sampled. For seafood lovers, chingri malai curry, succulent shrimps cooked in a smooth gravy of coconut milk, is a must try.
Kid-friendly Intro: The flavour of mustard oil, which dominates Bengali cooking, is an acquired taste, so you might want to introduce this slowly. Try a mustard oil dressing with mashed potatoes, which will soak up some of the sharp flavour.
Gujaratis are renowned for an almost-obsessive particularity about their food. Maybe because the other thing Guajaratis are known for is making everything from scratch. While snacks like thepla, khakhra, fafda, and gathia have quite a fan following even outside the community, the light, simple meals have not received as much attention.
This healthy dish from the Gujarati kitchen sits at the top of our to-try list: dal dhokli. Easy to prepare, it is a meal in itself, where the carbs meet the lentil without the diner having to participate in the process. Strips of wheat flour are simmered in dal to prepare this delicious delicacy of mild flavours, making it a very child-friendly dish. The Gujarati yogurt curry is another light preparation and a good occasional substitute for dal. And sev tamata nu shak, a spicy tangy tomato curry topped with sev, is one of our favourite semi-sinful dishes.
Kid-friendly Intro: Begin with the healthy snacks for kids. Your kid will believe he’s getting a treat, but it will actually be quite healthy: dhokla, patra, and khandvi are all steamed, which means you’re avoiding oils.
If you ever find yourself in Kashmir, it is our strong suggestion that you hit pause on the sightseeing and go foodseeing instead — assuming you’re a carnivore. The rich gravies and spices; the succulent, slow-cooked meat curries; the kebabs; the lusciously fried ribs – Kashmir is a culinary treasure trove. The lavish wazwan, a traditional Kashmiri Muslim feast, originally comprised 36 dishes, and while it’s difficult to pick a winner amid such a line-up, one of the most delectable dishes is gushtaba: succulent meatballs in a light, yogurt-based gravy, perfect for kids who love meat but aren’t old enough to eat off the bone. But when the amount of meat gets to be too much, the Kashmiri dum aloo shines through. But the best part of Kasmiri cuisine? It’s not too difficult to re-create the rich flavours at home.
Kid-friendly Intro: Kashmiri food uses a lot of mutton so if you’re veg, or your child is only used to poultry, it may seem like there’s no room for you in this cuisine. But you can still introduce and appreciate the flavours through the iconic Kashmiri kahva — a tea unlike anywhere else in India, without milk, flavoured with saffron and a sprinkle of crushed almonds. Don’t worry, there’s no caffeine.
What do the state’s brainy civil service personnel eat? Lots of sattu, or flour made from dry roasted Bengal gram, as this ingredient is pretty much the hero of the Bihari kitchen. Versatile and highly nutritious, sattu finds its way into a homegrown version of Bournvita and is also used as an important ingredient in snacks and sweets. And since the gram is roasted to make the flour, it is one of the few flours that can be consumed raw.
Litti chokha is the quintessential Bihari dish. Made of litti, a dough ball of wheat flour stuffed with sattu and spices, it is either baked or deep fried and eaten with chokha, a mixed veggie dish with a smoky flavour. Another flavourful dish is the malpua, which can be enjoyed hot or cold. Not to forget sarson waali machi – the mustard taste is reminiscent of Bengali cuisine, but overall, the dish has a distinct flavour that any fish-lover is sure to appreciate.
Kid-friendly Intro: Sattu can be made into a health drink or porridge as a replacement to baby food, which means this unique taste can be introduced early. Simply mix it with cold milk or water to make a thick paste. For older children, sattu sharbat is a refreshing summer drink. And Bihari desserts are also a good way to mix up the table – just not too frequently, or you’ll undo all of the healthiness of the Bihari veggies.
If you’ve ever been to a Malayali wedding or attended an Onam fest, you are probably familiar with the lavish sadhya: a traditional meal served on a banana leaf that includes rice and a seemingly infinite number of vegetable dishes, accompaniments, and a ‘sweet-dish,’ usually payasam. While the elaborate sadhya seems like a daunting task to replicate, the light and flavourful veggies are fairly uncomplicated. The main flavour is coconut: Most of the cooking is done in coconut oil and grated coconut is used as the base in veg and non-veg dishes alike. A great place to begin is avial, a mixed veg preparation, which is a good way to add an exciting twist to kids’ veggies. Another gem from the Malayali kitchen is an evening snack that can be whipped up in no time: ethakka appam or, deep-fried banana fritters. The Malayalis are equally fond of their poultry and seafood. This delicious chicken curry goes perfectly well with rice or chapattis.
Kid-friendly Intro: Malayali food is characterized by coconut, so an easy intro is to grate a bit of fresh coconut into your vegetable preparations. If you’re feeling up to it, recreate the sadhya at home on a banana leaf with rice, a veg dish, a non-veg dish (if you like, since there are no rules at home), and a helping of banana chips.