There are lots of ways to explore a culture outside of your own, but the most delicious way is through food! Making a new meal with your family is a great way to create memories and teach essential life skills. In some families, there are even special “secret recipes” which are not to be shared. Lucky for us, these books share a story your kiddos will love, and some even include recipes that make exploring culture through food super-easy. So, pull out your apron and don your chef hat – it’s time for a culinary adventure!
There are many books that explore culture through food, but these four focus on the stories and food of South Asia. When served all together, these foods could be a full meal, including dessert! These are all Own Voices stories, which means the author is from the culture the books are representing. This authenticity is important to me. I know the details in each story are truly representative of my culture, too.
Also, this is just a small sampling of the type of food you can find around South Asia. The delicious cuisine varies greatly by region and ingredients available. I’m just sharing some of my favorite books with you!
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Sugar in Milk
The first book, Sugar in Milk written by Thrity Umrigar and illustrated by Khoa Le, is a powerful story that weaves together modern immigration and ancient Persian legend. The main character is a young girl who feels alone in a strange and new country. Her aunt tells her the story of a Persian leader who sails with his people to India. The Indian king is unsure about opening up his land to newcomers. Using the metaphor of adding sugar to milk, the two men come to an agreement using humor and goodwill, and the refugees find a new home. Ultimately, this story is about embracing change, accepting others, and living in a beautiful and diverse society.
This story makes me think of a steamy cup of masala chai (spiced tea). Besides black tea and spices, the other main ingredients are sugar and milk. I love my tea extra creamy and sweet, so there’s a lot of milk and sugar in my recipe. You can adjust the spices to make your chai how you’d like, but mine always includes ginger and cinnamon, too. Delicious!
Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-Ji
Next up is Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji written by F. Zia and illustrated by Ken Min. In this story, Aneel is at home with his family and his Dada-ji (paternal grandfather) is regaling him with all the feats of strength he used to complete in India. What food gave him strength? Roti! Roti is a type of flatbread that’s served at most South Asian meals. My mom used to make it fresh daily, and my brother and I would often have fresh, warm roti filled with butter and sugar as an afterschool snack.
There are all types of bread in South Asian cuisine. My favorite is flaky, buttery paratha, and my daughter, Beti, loves extra garlicky naan. Roti, however, is one of the simplest breads to make. Despite its simplicity, I often buy it frozen. Regardless, adults and kiddos alike will enjoy this story, and they will have fun making and eating their own roti at home.
Bilal Cooks Daal
The third book, Bilal Cooks Daal written by Aisha Saeed and illustrated by Anoosha Syed is a fun story about my favorite comfort food, daal. Daal is made with lentils and is filled with fiber and protein. There are different types of daal based on the lentils used, but this story features my favorite, chana daal, which is yellow in color. Chana daal is made with split chickpeas that can be found at many South Asian grocers.
In this story, Bilal is excited to share his family’s recipe with his friends. As they play and wait for the daal to be ready, Bilal can’t help but wonder – will his friends like his daal as much as he does? This story is a great introduction to foods children may not be familiar with, and it reminds us to be kind and accepting when trying something new. Anyone who has ever packed a cultural food for lunch will understand Bilal’s feelings. This story is a great “window” book for children outside of this culture, and a wonderful “mirror” book for any child who identifies as South Asian. Bonus – there’s a recipe for channa daal included in the book!
10 Gulab Jamuns
Last, but certainly not least, we move on to dessert and my daughter’s favorite food – gulab jamun! 10 Gulab Jamuns, written by Sandhya Acharya and illustrated by Vanessa Alexandre, is a sweet story about brothers Idu and Adu. They watch as Mamma prepares gulab jamuns for a special dinner with guests. However, the boys can’t help themselves and, slowly but surely, the sticky, sweet treats disappear! With a bit of teamwork, Mamma saves the day (and dinner), like the superhero she is.
Why do Idu and Adu (and Beti!) find gulab jamuns so irresistible? Well, they are balls of dough that are deep-fried and then soaked in a rose-flavored syrup. I think they’re best when they’re warm and soft, but you can eat them at any temperature. Interested in trying them? This book also has a recipe from famous blogger and cookbook author, Hetal Vasavada of Milk & Cardamom. She’s turned gulab jamuns into a cake, which I cannot wait to try!
So, which of these delicious books about food are you excited to dig into? Do you have other favorite kid’s books that explore culture through food? Let me know in the comments!
For more children’s book recommendations featuring strong Black and brown characters, check me out at Beti Books! I love sharing media that represents our multicultural family, and I know your family will enjoy it, too.
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