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Into The Mouths Of Babes: The Foods That Bind

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.

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."

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.

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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Monica Bhide