Are you looking for a gift for a new mama? Something that is not another onesie, blanket, or squishy rattly toy? Try this: Around the World in 80 Purees. This is a brand new cookbook (out today!) for baby food. But not just your regular pureed carrots baby food; this is about going global.
I am so excited about this idea and wish it had been around when my son was little. This book will be fabulous. How do I know? Because I know the author, and she is fabulous! Leena Saini has had a smile on her face each time I've seen her. She loves her kids, and she loves to cook. So this book is the perfect thing for her to create.
Leena was gracious enough to take some time to interview here with me. Have fun getting to know her and learning more about her book.
Sherri: Have you always been interested in cooking? Is it something that comes naturally to you?
Leena: I’ve always had a love of food and cooking, particularly the way different cultures prepare the same ingredients, but with different spices and using different cooking techniques. Cooking does come pretty naturally to me (as opposed to baking which I struggle with) and I find that creating a dish or trying/developing a recipe is a great creative outlet.
S: When did you first realize a love for food and cooking?
L: My mom had golden hands in the kitchen. She loved to try new foods, recipes and just experiment with different flavors. I remember her making full Indian meals, sorting lentils, chopping vegetables, and making roti, a soft, whole wheat flat bread. It would take all day for her and I would watch her lovingly add a pinch of this or that to each dish. But unlike many traditional Indian homes, my mom wasn’t wedded to just Indian cuisine. She had a love of all cultures and their cuisines and so experimented with different recipes that she’d get from friends or magazine articles. When she passed away in 2005, I was devastated on many levels. One of the things I mourned was not being able to taste her food ever again (nothing ever tastes like your mom’s cooking). Now with my own two daughters, I try to keep her cooking and food memories alive by feeding my little ones the same dishes she used to make for me.
S: What prompted you to write a cookbook about baby food?
L: The inspiration for this book was my sweet daughter Kirina (now almost 5). When she was four-months-old and ready for solids, I did exactly what most first-time moms do: I bought a box of organic baby rice cereal from the grocery store. I prepared it as directed and gave her a spoonful. She frowned. And then she spit it out. With gusto! She continued to do this for a week straight.
As a person who absolutely adores food, I felt so defeated. My little foodie-to-be was not enjoying the eating experience as I had hoped. I then tasted the pasty mush we were feeding her and nearly spit it out myself. To use one of Kirina’s words, “Yuck!” Why in the world am I feeding my child something I would never eat?
I got creative and started seasoning up her meals. Pureed avocado with lime. Indian lentils with cumin. A pinch of saffron in her applesauce or ground cardamom in her bananas. Kirina ate with such zeal, that it inspired me to research and create recipes with “baby-friendly” spices and seasonings. I took inspiration from parents around the world and learned what they were feeding their little ones. Before I knew it, I had a whole stack of recipes and a baby that loved to eat!
S: Why did you focus on international foods?
L: I focused on international foods for two reasons. For one, my mom was always curious about international cuisine. So that curiosity has stayed with me. When I had Kirina, I started wondering what babies around the world eat, especially since the American baby food shelves were all lined with very bland, one-note jars of things. When I started researching this area and talking to international moms, I discovered that babies around the world eat anything BUT bland food! Their cuisine is fragrant with herbs, spices and ingredient diversity. And that just made me more excited about how to diversify a baby’s diet to broaden their taste palate.
S: Why might families want to introduce international foods to their babies?
L: Babies around the world are known to be much less picky and more adventurous eaters. They are exposed to different ingredients, spices, and full-flavored meals from a much earlier age. This creates almost a “food habit” for them. Simply put, babies around the world are more open to different foods because they’ve been exposed to it more and from a young age. We American parents can learn from these ideas, trying to feed our children flavorful and diverse foods form an early age.
S: With the prevalence of food allergies and sensitivities that seem to be growing, are there any particular ingredients that could be more irritating than others?
L: My number one rule is always check with your pediatrician before starting solids or if you are unsure about a certain ingredient. The American Pediatric Association (APA) suggests starting solids no earlier than 6 months of age. And after 6 months of age, a baby can sample just about anything. Eggs and nuts usually come to mind when people think of child food allergies. But this is not the case around the world where there tends to be less prevalence of such reactions. The APA used to recommend waiting to start these foods, but the latest is that after 6 months baby can enjoy anything. Keep in mind that any food can create an allergic response. Always try the new ingredient for 2-3 days and watch for reactions like a rash or other symptoms.
S: What recipes or ingredients are good places to start for children (and parents) who may be new to veering away from the standard rice or strained carrots?
L: Pure, homecooked fruits and vegetables are a fabulous place to start. But start with seasoning them! A pinch of saffron or cinnamon in applesauce, a pinch of cumin or oregano in a carrot purée, or a curried coconut rice dish (recipe in my book) make excellent and exciting first tastes.
S: Where do your recipes (or ideas) come from?
L: I read, research, cook and taste! I wake up thinking about food and culture and trying different recipes from around the world. Cooking is a natural and intuitive process for me, where I often make things up as I go along (unlike baking which I’m really not so good at!)
S: Do your children get involved in cooking?
L: Absolutely! Ela, my 2.5-year-old, likes to play with dough and fresh herbs, and Kirina, my 5-year-old, does just about everything! Mixing, mashing, adding chocolate chips to, well, everything she possibly can.
S: What are your daughters’ favorite recipes from the collection?
L: By far their favorite is the saffron applesauce. In terms of savory dishes, coconut chicken curry, and all the rice dishes are a hit. Ela really loves the Taiwanese minced pork recipe (Lu Rou Fan) and minced beef (Queema/Keema) recipe.
S: Other than cooking, as a busy mom, what do you do for self-care?
L: Self-care is always so hard! Regular gym workouts and long walks always feel good and keep me sane. I love reading, which always provides peace and quiet and escape. Magazines, cookbooks from the library, lots of fiction. Keeping busy and staying curious help me a lot, too. Knitting, news-watching and just learning new things keep me going.
S: Is there anything else you want to say? Any question you wish had been asked?
L: I am just deeply passionate about changing the way babies eat in this country. It’s my goal to help little ones savor and enjoy their food and teach parents how to introduce flavor. And not be scared of spice—because “spice” doesn’t always mean “spicy!”
Leena Saini is a lifelong foodie who has written about global baby food for Baby Center and on the food blog Eat, Drink, Better. She’s also a regular contributor to masalamommas.com and Sally’s Place. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two children. Find her online at masalababyfood.com.
Find Leena here:
Buy the book:
Around the World in 80 Purees: Quick and Easy Recipes for Global Baby Food
Published by Quirk Books on August 16, 2016
You can buy the book at www.bn.com, www.indiebound.org, www.amazon.com, or anywhere books are sold!