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Spice up your baby's life with new Waterloo Region cookbook

Introduce your kids to an array of flavours and explore over 100 recipes in Spice Baby! a new book by Waterloo Region culinary artist Zahra N. Habib

Looking for recipes ranging from exotic fruit purées like peach and cardamom to hearty lentil and meat curries, to manageable finger foods for toddlers like pillowy naan and much more?

My podcasting co-host Sara and I were intrigued to recently discover a new cookbook called Spice Baby! that provides more than 100 recipes designed to introduce children to a wide palate of flavours from an early age.

The author of the cookbook, Zahra N. Habib is a contributing writer for the cookbook No Recipe, No Problem by New York Times best-selling authour Phillis Good.

I've known Zahra for years as our children attended elementary school together here in Waterloo. We recently reconnected when we saw each other at the grocery store and chatted about her wonderful new book that introduces little ones to an array of flavours with nutrient-dense, easy-to-follow recipes.

Her book provides a 12-week, day-to-day chart showing how to introduce a baby to their first superfoods, along with several herbs and spices.

Sara and I are vegetarians, and our families love the fiery flavours of South Asian cuisine. We were delighted by the number of meatless recipe options, like savoury vegetable Ondhvo cake, ricotta fritter and cream curry, and vegetable samosas and chutneys.

My family enjoys samosas with tamarind sauce or fruit-based chutneys with mango, apples, ginger, and cranberries. Sara and her youngest daughter love chana masala and vegetable korma with a good amount of basmati rice.

"For me, daal is the perfect vegan dish, you get all the protein you need in a delicious and spicy bowl," says Sara.

Although the recipes in Spice Baby! are intended to be ways of expanding the culinary palate of young (and fussy) eaters, there are amazing dishes for all ages in the book.

On Bonn Park podcast, Sara and I have talked to some of the area's finest culinary artists like restauranteur Jessie Votary, the fearless leader, mastermind, and general manager of Ramshackle Industries in Stratford who sat down with us for Episode 36.

We were also thrilled to have local chef and TV personality ChefD on Episode 51 of Bonn Park, along with culinary nomad and world traveler Chef Aaron Clyne, who talked to us about his cookbook Travel, Eat, Repeat on Episode 103 of Bonn Park.

That's why I asked Zahra to tell us all about her new cookbook, Spicy Baby! made right here in Waterloo Region...

Brown Lentils and Butternut Squash Curry

So let's talk South Asian and East African-influenced cuisine...

Marshall: First off, my family loves crispy vegetable fritters. Tell us about your Ricotta Fritter & Cream Curry recipe.

Zahra: This dish actually started with a household tradition of making fritters on weekend mornings. I became obsessed with making the perfect fritter and so we would have a lot left over sometimes and I started thinking about ways to re-purpose them.

I was inspired by the popular dish Malai Kofta and I was also trying to replicate a curry I used to have in Vancouver at an all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffet on Main Street. The curries I ate there were not what I grew up with but I still loved the food.

South Asian food is often lumped into one category but there is a lot of variation which depends on regional ancestry. There is a lot to explore even for South Asians. My family also migrated from India to East Africa so there are East African-influenced recipes in my cookbook too.

The Ricotta Fritter and Cream Curry is a mishmash of weekend traditions, memories and inspirations. It was an instant success and I was delighted to be able to make more than one meal out of the fritters. I suspect some South Asians might find this curry a bit unorthodox but I stand by this recipe!

Marshall: Sara and I really enjoyed all the insights and background information you provide with your recipes, and how some of them have been passed down, like the Savoury Vegetable "Ondhvo" Cake.

Zahra: I love recipes that are passed down too. I think of the special memories that my parents created for our family, especially through food and I want my kids to look back and feel the same way.

Recipes are also an excellent way to jog memories and extract stories about our familial history. This recipe reminds my dad of his home in East Africa.

He said this recipe was not baked in an oven but it was baked on a “saghri” or over coals and the smokey flavour with the fresh vegetables made the Ondhvo taste very different from anything we make here.

My dad remembers whenever his mom would make this it was in the afternoon at tea time and whoever was home would gather in the outdoor courtyard in the centre of the housing complex and sit together on a “sadhri” mat.

Neighbours who could smell the baking would join in. Everyone was welcome for chai and Ondhvo and there always seemed to be enough to share. These stories give me and my children a peek into the past and a different way of life.

Who's hungry for samosas, chutneys, and daal?

Marshall: My kids love samosas and chutneys but we had never considered making them until we discovered the recipe for Vegetable Samosas in Spice Baby!

Zahra: Whenever my mom makes samosas for us, I feel like she is showing her love because they are time consuming, delicate, an art form and so pleasurable to eat.

I also have fond memories of my mom teaching me how to separate the pastry so as not to tear them, how to fold them, fill them, paste them and fry them. Samosas were always an appetizer before a main meal or a snack with afternoon tea. But for us, they are usually the main course because we eat a lot of them.

Samosa are lovely to eat before indulging in a curry and rice too. The chutneys for samosas are like icing on a cake. I love playing with combinations and having one samosa with only tamarind sauce but then the next one with a bit of coconut chutney and tamarind. It’s part of the fun of eating samosas.

Red Lentil Daal with Ginger, Tomato and Cilantro

Marshall: I can see how a dish like your Chickpeas and Moong Beans and Red Lentil Daal is a great gateway to spicier curry and rice dishes down the road for people of all ages.

Zahra: I have a fond memory of my mom making daal -- which we actually call daar -- and how the smell of it throughout the house would make my Dad and I, who love daar, very impatient so we would frequent the kitchen and poke our heads in the pot waiting for it to be ready. We could never wait so we would scoop some ‘al dente’ lentils into a mug and slurp away.

I also remember a place in East Vancouver on Commercial Drive that would sell heaping bowls of daal for cheap and it was always hearty and warm and delicious. But it was also a kind of daal I wasn’t used to eating because there were big chunks of carrots in it and it was thick and creamy and spiced differently.

So when I started making my own, I really wanted to try new ways of making it and try to replicate the flavours I remembered to share with my partner and kids.

Daal really is a great starting point for introducing South Asian spices to babies because of the texture and nutrients, and I can see how this would be true at any age. It’s also versatile I have learned. You can make it spicier, creamier and add all kinds of vegetables. It’s great on its own, on rice, or with bread.

How about the lavishly delicious taste of South Asian and East African curry dishes at home?

Marshall: Sara and I were recently talking about the differences between green, red, and yellow curries.

Zahra: The biggest colour difference in South Asian curries has to do with the ingredients. It is not common to refer to a South Asian curry by colour in my experience but it can be useful in a recipe book to give a sense of what to expect if there isn’t an accompanying photo. Typically, the more yellow-coloured curries have turmeric which give them that colour. Kuku Paka is an East African curry which has turmeric and coconut cream making the curry sauce a warm light yellow colour.

Another moong bean and rice dish called Kichri has an accompanying sauce called Kadi which turns a bright yellow after combining the buttermilk with turmeric. South Asian red curries can either be red because of the tomatoes or red chilies in them, although the tomato-based curries look more orange or brown than red to me.

Any South Asian curry that looks green can be attributed to green vegetables like spinach or may have green chilies or cilantro in them.

There are certainly traditions in terms of what combinations work best with certain curries but I don’t think the rules apply to the colour of the curry for South Asian cooking.

I love cooking curries because I think there is a lot of room for trying new combinations. I have definitely made things the “wrong way” according to my parents, like adding garlic to a dish that should only have ginger or adding cumin when it should only have coriander. It didn’t taste bad, it just didn’t taste like what they were used to in that particular dish. I try to stay true to some recipes but I think playing around with authentic recipes can result in some really delicious new ones.

Refreshing yogurt blends are great on their own or as a side dish to any curry...

Marshall: I was excited to find a delicious variety of yogurt raitas in Spice Baby! as I like to cool down a REALLY spicy vindaloo dish with refreshing and light raita on the side.

Zahra: One of the best things about South Asian food besides the curries themselves are the accompaniments like raita, chutney, pickled mango, tamarind sauce, and so on. To be honest, I grew up with one kind of raita that my mom makes to this day and every time I would make it, I would think it tasted fantastic but my parents would very kindly tell me it wasn’t quite right. And it was true, it was always a variation but I love the variations. But the variety of sweet and savoury combinations is tasty. My mouth is watering just talking about them.

One of my favourite concoctions came about because my youngest loves okra and there was some left over after frying them up so the next day I decided to make a raita with it and it was delicious!

Like you said, yogurt can really help cool down a spicy curry but a raita does double duty. It turns the heat down and adds another flavour dimension. Who is going to say no to that?

What’s nice about the Spice Baby! recipes for these raitas is that the chilies are optional so you can get the cooling effect and still have a spice adventure without the heat if that’s your preference.

Moong Beans and Rice with Buttermilk Sauce

Marshall: The Spice Introduction Daily Guide is brilliant. Can you please share some insight on how you decided to put that all together?

Zahra: The Spice Introduction Daily Guide is something I wish I had created for myself as a new parent/caregiver. I asked myself if I could go back in time, what kind of guide would make it easy to shop and prepare food for a baby and give them nutritious food that a family could enjoy.

I tried to think about what questions arose for me when I started to introduce food to my babies and I wanted to take into account that families have diverse ways of eating and thought about how could this guide could appeal to a wide range of families.

I wanted to share what I learned to be nutritious for a baby. Ultimately, after incorporating the answers to those questions, my goal was to have little ones try as many new foods and spices as possible in three months so the family could try almost any recipe in the cookbook and eat the same food at mealtime.

The overall structure of the cookbook followed that goal as well as sharing the recipes from my own food adventure with my little ones.

Beef and Potatoes in a Tomato Curry Sauce

Marshall: Lastly, what has been the response and feedback you've received on your beautiful new cookbook?

Zahra: The response has been really positive. I have had people tell me it has changed the way they cook for their loved ones. Others have said that introducing first foods was already exciting but this book took it to a whole new level.

The endorsements I received before I even published have been echoed after publishing. Many people love South Asian food but a lot of them think it is too spicy for a baby which can be true.

Spice Baby! shows how to introduce babies to South Asian food early on and people are really receptive to this. There are also a number of second-generation South Asians in Canada who shared with me that they have wanted to introduce their babies to South Asian food but did not know how do this with a more multicultural approach because unlike our parents who cooked and ate predominantly South Asian food growing up, we are accustomed to a more culturally diverse diet.

Spice Baby! gives parents and caregivers a way to incorporate many spices into a baby’s diet whether you are South Asian or not. For others, this is mostly an exciting way to think about feeding a baby and the whole family.

I have also had feedback from older adults and families with older children that have discovered that this cookbook makes South Asian food more accessible to them because they are not used to eating very spicy food. I’m thrilled to share with anyone who is interested in how to do this and still give babies nutrient-dense, commonly eaten baby food.

Zahra says, once your child has been introduced to their first foods, you can carry on the taste adventure by exploring over 100 recipes in Spice Baby! that the whole family can enjoy, available to order at Amazon.

In the meantime, check out Zahra's scrumptious and healthy recipe for Bhurtho...

Eggplant Roasted and Curried

This dish is known as Bhurtho. Traditionally, the skin of the eggplant would be charred off using an open flame or on a charcoal grill to add a smoky flavour. For this recipe, the eggplant will be oven-roasted.

1 tsp. cumin powder

1 tsp. coriander powder

½ tsp. turmeric powder

⅛ tsp. black pepper - finely ground

⅛ tsp. red chilli powder (optional 8+ months)

1 tsp. fresh garlic - pressed

1 tsp. fresh ginger - pressed

½ cup cilantro - chopped finely

1 small onion - diced finely

1 eggplant, sliced in half lengthwise

4 Tbsp. grape seed or light vegetable oil

½ tsp. black mustard seeds

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a small bowl, pre-mix your cumin, coriander, turmeric, black pepper, red chilli powder (optional 8+ months), garlic, ginger and cilantro.

Rub half the oil all over the halved eggplants. Place halved eggplants face down, skin up on a cookie sheet. Bake for about 30-40 minutes or until the center has caved in and has changed in colour from white to green. Remove from the oven. Scrape the inside of the eggplant into a separate bowl.

Heat the remaining oil in a large non-stick saucepan for one minute on medium heat.

Add onions and sauté for 1 minute. Add the mustard seeds and wait until you see one of the seeds pop. Quickly stir in the pre- mixed spices and add the roasted eggplant. Simmer on low heat for about 10 minutes before serving.

Age: 6+ months

Serves: 4

Approximate Prep & Cook Time: 45 minutes

Freezable: Yes





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