Chicago Sun-Times Feature: Feeding kids’ interest in global cuisine

Chicago Sun-Times

Feeding kids’ interest in global cuisine

Never too early to foster appreciation for other cultures’ foods, say chefs

March 17, 2010


Wave chef Kristine Subido’s 5-year-old son Kamlin — who’s already traveled to his mom’s native Philippines twice — has a well-developed global palate.

He’ll happily eat a whole fish, including the cheeks. He adores Japanese cucumber salad, the bitter goodness of Chinese broccoli, Swiss chard and sauteed turnip greens — “and he’ll tell me if it’s bland,” says Subido, who is known for her liberal use of global spices at the W Chicago-Lakeshore restaurant. “He makes sure I do the red chili flakes, garlic and the olive oil.”

Two-year-old Talia Foss cracks an egg like a pro to the delight of her parents, Keni and Phillip Foss, while little sis Noa keeps busy with parsley. Phillip Foss, the chef at Lockwood, and his wife encourage kitchen play to expand their daughters’ palates.

(Al Podgorski/Sun-Times)


Nurturing a global palate

And this young foodie always peppers his chef mom about the ingredients used when they cook together in their Chicago kitchen. So much so that he tells Subido, “I want to be a cooker when I grow up.”

Like mother, like son.

“In his school, they’re very diverse, so that helps,” says Subido, whose family came to the United States when she was 8. “In his classroom, you see every color, which is great because he’s biracial.” When it comes to food, “he’s one of the more adventurous of his friends.”

Cuisine offers a delicious way for kids to connect to other cultures. But raising youngsters with global palates don’t happen by accident. It’s all about exposure — and best of all, you don’t need to board an airplane to get it.

We Chicago area dwellers are fortunate, as we’ve got a veritable smorgasbord to choose from when it comes to restaurants, ethnic grocery stores and markets that can serve as the setting for tasty cultural lessons.

“It’s been such a timeless tradition over history, bringing people to your table,” says Homa Sabet Tavangar, author of Growing Up Global: Raising Children to Be At Home in the World (Ballantine Books, $16).

This international business consultant and mother of three daughters gives parents tools to help their kids develop a global perspective, whether learning how to say hello in different languages or throwing an internationally themed birthday party. She serves up the topic of eating in a chapter called “Break Bread.”

“So much diplomacy and friendship and getting to know people and ‘meeting the parents’ [is done] over dinner or a meal. It really has been such a powerful tool,” says Tavangar, the daughter of Persian parents who is fluent in four languages.

Tavangar, who has lived in the Middle East, Africa, South America and throughout the United States, recently spoke at an Executives’ Club of Chicago women’s leadership breakfast.

“One of our first natural instincts is to nourish ourselves,” says Lockwood chef Phillip Foss, the dad of already adventurous toddler eaters. “When you begin at an early age, you’re halfway there already.”

Foss — who’s lived and worked in Hawaii, Bermuda, France and Israel — and his wife try to get nearly 3-year-old Talia “involved as much as possible in day-to-day [food] preparation. My wife’s got a great touch with doughs and breads. You get [kids’] hands into it, show ’em it’s fun, and it comes out of their personalities.”

Already, Talia loves Jerusalem couscous, which her Israeli mom makes from scratch.

“The best you can do is expose [kids] as much as possible,” says Foss, whose children’s menu at the restaurant in the Palmer House Hilton features roasted salmon nuggets and “market greens” as well as the more predictable grilled cheese sandwich and mini-hot dog.

“Take them to markets in the summer, to farms,” he says. “The most amazing thing about kids is their capacity and desire to learn. They’re all about fun and colors.”

Although Foss’ wife — who does most of the family’s cooking — keeps a kosher kitchen, “We do some Asian food, certainly French and Italian. My wife brings in Tunisian [where her parents are from], a lot of Middle Eastern influences, Indian. We try to keep it diverse.”

And when you’re on the road, suggests Subido, keep feeding kids’ interest in global cuisine.

“Go to the markets first instead of the restaurants,” says Subido, who makes her own baby food for 6-month-old Shamariyah. “Look at all the different fruits and vegetables. Really ask [the kids] a lot of questions.”

Before visiting the Philippines, she and Kamlin “talked about what kinds of foods came from there,” she says. “What he really wanted to do was drink from a coconut with a straw.”

But what if culinary diversity isn’t so close at hand? Now living in a fairly homogenous Philadelphia suburb, Tavangar makes it a priority to visit West African eateries in the city (she took her kids to live in Gambia for part of 2007 to expose them to life abroad).

“It’s one reason I was interested in this book,” she says. “I wanted my children to experience the world. By not being part of the diversity of the world, it was like we were being deprived of one of our senses.”

Grownups can help young people hone these senses by showing their own willingness to sample global tastes.

With kids, “the younger you start, the better,” Tavangar says. “It’s like developing a muscle. The Food Network and Travel Channel certainly have made it fun” to experiment with different cuisines.

And since food brings folks together, why not invite friends to share dishes from your background? Tavangar’s pals have started making her Persian stews and other dishes at their own homes after first sampling them at her house.

“It’s great if you don’t just do it on a special occasion, but you even have it on a Thursday night,” she says. “You have to plan a little bit ahead, but that’s something the family can look forward to sitting down to together.

“You’re having a ‘staycation’—you’re not going anywhere, but you still want to have an international experience with your family. That’s just a really nice thing to share.”

Maureen Jenkins is a Chicago free-lance writer who blogs at

Parents: Go ethnic when eating out or on road

More tips from author Homa Sabet Tavangar ( on helping kids develop a “global palate”:

It’s a small world, after all. Help kids see the similarities in foods eaten around the world. We all eat bread, but it can take the form of tortillas, naan, pita or challah. Likewise, noodles can be Italian capellini, Greek orzo or Asian rice noodles. Sample these at home or at restaurants.

Cook up some fun. Kids are more willing to taste something they made — or helped make — themselves. Help them prepare international dishes as part of a tasty at-home lesson, and invite their friends to join in.

Travel the world by dining out. You don’t need a passport to dine at a Ethiopian, Korean or Persian restaurant in the Chicago area. Ethnic eateries tend to be affordable and casual. Consider visiting one whose people are currently in the news. Learn a few words of the country’s language from the waiter. Even better: Tie a restaurant visit to a cultural event such as a foreign movie, museum exhibit or concert.

On the road, make even fast food “global.” Traveling to Hawaii or a foreign country? If your kids love McDonald’s, drop in to see how local specialties find their way onto the menu. (“Burgers” are made of lamb, chicken or veggies in India; shrimp nuggets are served in Japan.) Or sample the country’s own “fast food,” which may be falafels and shawarmas in the Middle East, or tacos and other hand-held specialties sold by street cart vendors in Mexico.

Spice up your holidays. Add a global twist to Thanksgiving or other holiday menus by incorporating dishes from your family’s own cultural heritage — or someone else’s. Use different spices and herbs. Go Indian with slow-cooked curried turkey, and put a Mexican spin on leftovers the next day with turkey enchiladas.

Maureen Jenkins

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