I looked at the selection of items arrayed before me, the product of my husband’s first foray into the markets of Sana’a, Yemen, and had absolutely no idea what to do with any of them.
I grew up in Wisconsin’s Kickapoo Valley, the youngest child of a securely middle class family. We ate cereal for breakfast, soup and sandwiches for lunch, and a supper of meat, potatoes, one of three vegetables (peas, green beans or corn), and a salad of iceberg lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers. That’s it. As a teenage single mom out on my own, I experimented a bit with food after deciding to go vegetarian. I winged it, making whatever I could from what I could pick up from the food co-op I worked at as each day closed. I prided myself on breaking away from the “normal”eating plan of my childhood, and on being adventurous and daring with trying new things.
I admit, I almost met my match in okra and eggplant.
Since adulthood, I have always lived below the poverty line, and this was true in Yemen as well. The fancy supermarkets that catered to the Westerners were not for us. This was especially true once we moved to the village, where all that was available was locally grown produce and staples like rice and powdered milk. If I didn’t want my family to starve, I had to buckle down and learn how to cook in a whole new way.
I made it a point to get to know people from all sorts of backgrounds -- Yemeni, Somali, Moroccan, and more. I tried whatever was given to me, and asked lots of questions. I became proficient at cooking common, everyday dishes from all over the Middle East and Africa. I was excited. But the same could not be said for all of the children. I had to find ways to gain their enthusiasm for the new foods that were becoming staples in our house, first, due to simple necessity, and then due to their good taste and high nutritional value. Here are a few things I have found that worked beautifully with my children.
- Introduce new foods one or two at a time, keeping the meals simple. Somali maraq, or vegetable stew, for example, with Yemeni flat bread. This keeps them from getting overwhelmed, and also assures that they don’t fill themselves up on something familiar instead of trying what is new.
- Tell them stories about the people who taught me the dishes, or look up the countries together in books or on the internet to learn more about them, so they see the food in its original context. The best thing of all is when a sister comes over and shows us how to prepare dishes, providing lots of laughter and love, and a direct connection to where the food comes from.
- Get them involved directly, from bargaining with the guy at the vegetable stand to chopping carrots and kneading bread. Children love to feel as though they are a part of something, and are contributing to the family well-being. Plus, it’s just plain fun!
- Try the food of the common people, rather than the elite of a place or country. It is unfailingly more economical, more local, more nourishing and, to be honest, more delicious. The story of a people told in food is a beautiful thing, and can build bridges of understanding and common ground.
- Make sure that they understand the importance of food, and the blessing that it truly is, when so many are going without. It is hard to understand true poverty, or true hunger, when one has not experienced it, or at least seen it and looked it in the eye and realized that that little girl, or that old man, is not so far from us, and that we are united in our humanity.
- Grow some of the ingredients if you are able. Have a few herbs, like cilantro and basil, that are popular in many different cuisines, growing in pots in a nice sunny window. Nothing beats the taste of fresh food, and children get an appreciation of and connection to where their food comes from
These are just a few of the things that have worked for us. My children all love trying new things, and have very adventurous palates. We freely mix and match dishes from all over the world, depending on what is in season and affordable.
Is it foolproof? Will they always love what you come up with? Well, no. But they are always willing to give it a try. And if all else fails, their father will eat it!
Even the okra. Ew.