From spices to quinoa to fresh fruit, the cookery corner at the Sharjah Children’s reading festival was packed with surprises for the little ones and their families.
Spice lover, and engineer turned food/travel/parenting writer, Monica Bhide whipped together a simple recipe for spicy rice krispies that was created by her 7-year-old son. “I can’t take credit for this! It’s his creation,” she said.
Bhide loves to tell stories as she cooks. “When I was a child I’d get scared about sleeping alone in my room. For some reason I was scared of witches. My grandma would say don’t worry, just place some mustard seeds outside the door and the witches would just count them and not come in,” she said as she placed some mustard seeds in the oil. Over the years, her relationship with spices just grew stronger. “Spices heal the body from the inside,” she said.
As she called on children volunteers and asked them to mix the spice blend and rice krispies with their hands, she explained to them that when you touch food with y our hand, you give it some of your energy. “That’s why mum’s cooking is the best because she puts in it her energy and her love,” she said.
Ten years ago, Monica lost a friend and that made her change her priorities. “I realized that all I wanted to do was tell stories. I just want to write so I quit my job and decided to do just that. Now, I have two kids, three books and I write about food, travel and parenting,” she said.
Food writing is something that she enjoys a lot. “Food is about nourishment and are just a medium for stories that are intimate. Writing about food helps me make sense of the world. It helps me relate better to it,” she said.
So what makes a good writer? According to Bhide it’s the ability to go beyond the food. “Food is related to a memory. If it evokes an emotion then it’s successful,” she said. Food writers also need to learn how to write through their senses. “You have to be observant and transmit the ‘now’ moment through all your senses,” she added.
Monica’s work has been published in many major national and international publications. She has also published three cookbooks, the latest being Modern Spice: Inspired Indian recipes for the contemporary kitchen.
Another chef and writer visiting the festival was Lily Vanilli, one of Britain’s best-loved artisan bakers and author of ‘A zombie ate my cupcake’ and ‘Sweet Tooth’.
Lily is not new to the region. She’s a consultant for a number of bakers in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. When it comes to baking with children, she says that kids do love to bake. “When you do get a kids that’s engaged they can be very creative! It’s getting more and more popular thanks to celebrity chefs,” she said
Food for children should be healthy, delicious and fun, says Lily. “You can also slip in vegetables in cake. I add grated beetroot for its nutritional value and its also a natural sweetener,” she said.
Lily’s grandma was also a baker. “She made the same Victoria sponge cake every day.” Today Lily’s version is modified using ingredients that her grandma would have never thought of like pomegranate.
She considers baking meditative and therapeutic. “Baking has always been my passion. It’s how I relax. If I’m stressed… I put on some music and bake. It’s my private sanctuary.”
Also thrilling his guests with his culinary skills was Callum Hann, a 24-year-old Australian-based cooking extraordinaire from Australia.
After watching the poor diets and cooking habits of his friends, Callum developed a recipe book that caters to students and beginner chefs. He nabbed the second-place spot in the 2nd series of MasterChef Australia and, despite being all of 20, wowed the judges and the viewers with his exceptional cooking.
He is now traveling around Australia, sharing his love of food and passion for cooking with young people all over the country. Callum’s first book was The Starter Kitchen and his most recent book is I’d Eat That. His books contain recipes and sound advice that will give novice foodies the skills and the enthusiasm to become better, more knowledgeable, happier cooks.
In his cooking demonstration Callum prepared a haloumi asparagus and quinoa salad – a recipe from I’d Eat That.
Cooking savory dishes, he says, can be less challenging than baking. “With savory dishes you can substitute ingredients, take something out or add something in as long as you enjoy eating it. Unlike other things like bread or baked good. it really does matters what goes in the recipe,” he said. Children, he said, are not eating enough vegetables. “Have a lot of good things around the house. Fruits that they can just open the fridge and eat,” he said.
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Aliaa Al Ori