Eating Our Way around the World: What to Learn?
August 29, 2018 8:48 AM   Subscribe

Pursuant to my loss of cooking mojo from my last question, my kids and I have decided to pick a new country every month and learn about it and then cook from it. So I'm trying to think, what kinds of things should my kids learn?

I was thinking of putting together a little template for them to fill in for each country, and I'm trying to decide what to put on it -- of course country, language, capital, flag. But what other kinds of country facts/info should they be hunting down (ideally that I can turn into a template for them to fill in)? They're definitely interested in animals and habitats. We're going to find children's books at the library, stories about the place (not just facts), and see if we can find cartoons etc. online for a little culture. And then of course research the food and come up with something to cook.

(They're 9 and 7, both excellent readers, but the 9-year-old hates to write, so freeform paragraphs won't fly. Fill-in-the-blank will. Also, they'll have to rotate continents every month, otherwise they just want to eat their way through Latin America.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee to Society & Culture (37 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
That's awesome. How about including an end-of-month reflection section: what was your favourite thing we ate from this country. What one place in this country would you most like to visit? Who is a person from this country who you admire?
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:52 AM on August 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

Something along the lines of UNESCO world heritage sites, which might get them thinking about the history?
posted by Maecenas at 9:06 AM on August 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

Breakfast in each country
posted by jointhedance at 9:06 AM on August 29, 2018 [6 favorites]

For language, rather than saying something like Finland speaks Finnish, which doesn't add that much, how about writing down how to say a specific word in that language? Like Hello or Thank You? Maybe take a stab a writing it in the native writing alphabet and then write out how to pronounce it phonetically in English?

It won't be able to go on your template, but I think it would be fun to listen to some music from that country, whether traditional or pop. Or you could make a playlist to listen to while eating your meal from the country.
posted by like_neon at 9:07 AM on August 29, 2018 [10 favorites]

Maybe something that ties in with why a country's food should be the way it is? Climate, plant ranges, dairy production, farm vs forest, that kind of thing.
posted by doiheartwentyone at 9:07 AM on August 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

What about determining who are the native people of this land, or who else has lived here? Who are the current minorities in this country (religious, racial, ethnic, etc., whichever works)?

What are the main imports/exports of this country?
posted by hydra77 at 9:07 AM on August 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

There are lots of interesting facts about a country that are reflected in the cuisine including climate, relationships with other cultures (like conquering and being conquered), even religion, proximity of the ocean, etc. I think I'd put some things like high, low, and average temperatures, and possibly something about mountains vs plains. These things say a lot about why food is different in Moscow from what it is in Naples.
posted by SemiSalt at 9:09 AM on August 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

This is sort of an orthogonal answer to your question, but I’m lucky enough to get to travel a lot and these are a few things stand out to me from the best cooking courses and food tours I’ve done, which might inform your ideas around what the kids research and do.

- Don’t neglect the drama of shopping and food prep. Going to the actual morning market at 6:30 am where real people were really doing their morning shopping was an all-round better experience than showing up at a closed restaurant with pre-chopped carrots I dumped in a bowl.

- Enjoy the language challenge - in global-tourist-trail places like Istanbul and Hoi An, markets were literally the only places I couldn’t get by with English, or identify the right type of thing to buy, because these places were some of the only purely-locals-only establishments. This made it way more fun and made the final dish feel like much more of an accomplishment.

- Be accessible - people like the hosts of the Hot Thai Kitchen and Manjula’s Kitchen YouTube channels are the closest in terms of accessibility to novices I’ve found online.

- Buy in person, not online - the shopping and relationships with storekeepers are a big part of the fun, and if you live in or near a big city, every large and many small nationality groups will have a grocer or cafe, and it may actually just be a suburb or two over. It may be worth going online for something like a spice you predict your kids will want to use more of, like sumac, rather than for the odd bundle of choi sum.

So tying that all together, I’d try to...

- get the kids to look for accessible recipes online with you
- write up the shopping lists together while they check the cupboards to see what’s already there
- get them to find meatspace places to get the ingredients
- do a (small! easy!) interview with someone on some downtime in the shop who works there “for school”, like a butcher - small shops will probably be better for this; questions could be easy like “we’re making [dish] but we’re not sure which kind of X to get - can you help us?” or “how long has it been since the Y was picked?” or “where did the Z come from?”
- let them do a little in-car “feedback” where you get them to compare notes before cooking - why would the butcher have said “20 minutes on low” but the YouTube person said “30 minutes on medium”?
- get them to portion out or unpack things
- get them to do age-appropriate prep
- get them to rate the dishes on a leaderboard/put them into a bracket system to find the One True Dish

This sounds like a lot of fun!
posted by mdonley at 9:28 AM on August 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

A famous landmark from each country.

(p.s. would you, uh, be willing to share this template when it's done? this sounds f'ing amazing)
posted by telepanda at 9:30 AM on August 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

Major regions / states / provinces within each country, maybe on a little map? Countries typically have multiple different cuisines and this is related to history, culture, and geography.

You could do regional cuisines in turn over the month and compare, if you're up for it.
posted by momus_window at 9:33 AM on August 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

Following up on mdonley's comment about markets, find a food market near you that you can take your kids to. I have encountered markets pretty similar to the traditional "market town" phenomenon in US cities. Plus, interestingly, the upper middle class and the locovore movement in the US has reinvigorated the market concept with "farmer's markets" with multiple vendors selling fresh produce.
posted by SemiSalt at 9:43 AM on August 29, 2018

Regional cuisine has holiday food and every day food. Maybe pick one of each. For example, Ecuador, Easter, and daily fare
posted by theora55 at 9:50 AM on August 29, 2018

This is a fun idea, I don't have kids but now I'm pondering something similar to do with my husband.

I'd like to suggest that you make sure to include meals other than dinner. As a kid finding out that people in other countries had for breakfast blew my mind. Also maybe pick on universally style of dish to make to compare across countries like most countries have a sandwich or a hotdog/sausage in a bun type dish that are completely their own.

On your template you might like a section on what is the most commonly grown foods in that country are & what is the most commonly eaten dish.

Dish they liked the most & dish they liked the least & why. Get them thinking about what they like in foods.

What new food did you try this month?
posted by wwax at 9:51 AM on August 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

A famous person from each country, or a national hero/heroine/key person in history from each country.
posted by Liesl at 9:51 AM on August 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

It might save you some headaches and make things more interesting to split up larger countries into a few regions. I'm thinking about India and China particularly (and the US but I'm guessing that's not on the list :). Lot of variation in climate, people, and cuisine between (e.g.) the north and south of those countries.
posted by quaking fajita at 9:51 AM on August 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you live in a big city, you could choose one country each month, identify its “national dish” (that one is ALWAYS contentious) and perhaps try it first at a restaurant near you, then cook it yourself. Or, try it at home first then see how it’s done properly by going to a restaurant from that country.
It could be a fun outing especially for the countries whose cuisine is not globally famous. Save China and France for the end 😃
posted by Kwadeng at 9:54 AM on August 29, 2018

latitude, so they can start seeing the patterns of what foods grow closer/farther from the equator. Most important crop imports and exports.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:55 AM on August 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

There is an entire book series dedicated to this and I learned to make crepes from it when I was about 8: Cooking The Way
They are geared for Grades 5-8 and give lots of background in the beginning.
posted by soelo at 10:01 AM on August 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

Oh hi I think UNICEF has your textbook. It looks like the approach they take is to do a little bit of an introduction to the continent and the country, and then introduces you to a handful of kids from different regions of that country, so you get an idea of the internal diversity. Animals, sports, and food seem like well-represented topics.

Comics and cartoons from each country is an excellent idea, though! When I visited my Irish friend for the first time, her 6- and 9-year-old sisters were pumping me with questions about what the kids' shows were in the US. But finding out about the government isn't a bad idea either - not, like, a deep dive into the politics, but a simple look at the structure; that kind of stuff was my jam when I was a kid, and it blew my mind to find out random trivia about stuff like "they call the leader of Ireland 'Taoiseach' instead of saying 'President'! Cool!"

Kids' TV or movies from that country may not be a bad idea either. Maybe a "movie night" with a classic film from that country would be interesting too (where available, of course).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:18 AM on August 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

How about learning the magic 3 words of Hello, Please, and Thank you in each language?

Weirdly, AirBNB might be helpful in exploring culture as they offer “experience __city of choice__” as a search option, then present different tours, cooking classes, etc. This may be a stretch, but you might also get a sense of architecture, design, decor from looking at rentals.
posted by jenquat at 10:19 AM on August 29, 2018

Students in lots of countries wear school uniforms. Your kids might find it interesting to see what their contemporaries are wearing.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 10:41 AM on August 29, 2018

Our library (so probably yours too!) has this really cool resource for world food. It's nice because it has a lot more countries than the ones that would immediately come to mind. And features on the food culture in addition to just recipes.
posted by Sweetchrysanthemum at 10:48 AM on August 29, 2018

"most countries have a sandwich or a hotdog/sausage in a bun type dish"

Reading this, it occurred to me that you could combine a few of the ideas here (literally). What if you originally bought the food for dinner at the specialty market, but also had the kids select another ingredient, and then you used the leftovers from dinner and the other chosen ingredient to make a sandwich or salad for lunch the next day? I'm thinking for Italy, you could buy ingredients for something like chicken parmesan, but also buy some fresh basil, and then make chicken caprese sandwiches.

What if you bought a condiment at the store, but also made your own, and then compared the two? Then you could iterate your recipe until you arrive at the Platonic form of the condiment.

Also going to suggest that, if you do decide to make breakfast, that you don't do Germany first, because nothing else measures up to them.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:58 AM on August 29, 2018

Whatever else you do, please include a reading of The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene du Bois.
posted by mogget at 11:09 AM on August 29, 2018 [4 favorites]

How about learning the magic 3 words of Hello, Please, and Thank you in each language?

Plus a food & drink related phrase where available? Bon appetit! Prost! That sort of thing.
posted by biffa at 11:20 AM on August 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

Raddish Kids is a subscription box that does this, so it might be worth looking at for inspiration. My kid is too young, despite it being billed for his age range. It came with three recipes (India: biryani, which looked like more of a simpler pilaf to me; chicken tikka masala; and naan [how do you expect 4yos to make naan, it's challenging for grownups! I digress...]) with some sciencey/observational questions added to the steps, a set of measuring spoons, some "table talk" cards and a patch.

Children Just Like Me: A Unique Celebration of Children Around the World might be a useful companion to this project. It's one of those DK books with a one- or two-page spread on kids from LOTS of countries. I linked to the older version which is the one I ordered because it sounds like the newer version (EmpressCallypigos linked to that one) doesn't do as well with class diversity.
posted by emkelley at 12:39 PM on August 29, 2018

Have you asked them what they want to know? They might have some great ideas!

Re: language—
My name is ____
Where is the bathroom? (Kid mileage)

How big is the country? How many time zones does it have?

If using the Internet, find and print a picture of one place in the country you think is beautiful. Where is it?

What foods (proteins, produce, or prepared dishes) and herbs/spices is this country known for? (This can be as simple or in-depth as your interest takes you)

What is a school day for someone your age like? What percent of boys go to school? Girls?
posted by epj at 1:58 PM on August 29, 2018

Maybe a bonus/extra-credit question: see if they can identify a popular dish that originated in another country, and talk about how it came to be popular in this month's country, and whether any changes have been made (say, subbing in a local vegetable or condiment instead of the original)?
posted by kristi at 5:15 PM on August 29, 2018

You know, there are certain food-themes that exist in pretty much every culture: bread/dough around filling, for example. Soup might be a more general one. Why not pick a theme (dough with filling will probably be more kid-approved than soup) and make sure that you prepare the country's version of the theme food each month.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:26 PM on August 29, 2018

Why rotate continents? I'm wondering if it could be even more interesting to do this by continent! Say you focus on Asia... and then you have meals from China, Japan, India, Thailand, Vietnam, etc... it seems like they might learn more if you look at different cuisines within one region.
posted by bluedaisy at 6:05 PM on August 29, 2018

I would recommend also putting some time into learning how to make sauces/speads from various countries, like romesco, chimichuri, ajvar, tzatziki, pesto, and etc.

There's no comparison to what you'll get in a jar, they're generally easy & quick to make, and you can never have enough chimichuri to spread on just about anything.
posted by kmkrebs at 6:46 PM on August 29, 2018

I think this is a FANTASTIC idea!! Well done!! I think trying to investigate how a dish maybe changes across borders? or another point of view, why do so many dishes look alike just across the border? Maybe investigate how the dishes got their name (for example, one surprise would be: "Beef Bourguignon" does not mean "a beef dish from Burgundy")? Also perhaps look at the preparation techniques and how they vary from region to region - like how "techniques in how to cut vegetables" is different between europe and asia. Look at the way food is served in the countrie and see if there are always the "protein, vegetable, starch" and how they vary from place to place (sometimes the starch is potatoes, sometimes rice, sometimes pasta, sometimes bread, sometimes 2 or 3 of the aforementioned at the same time - why?)

also, I really don't know how 9 and 7 year olds process stuff so please take my suggestions with a grain of salt. I have no real experience working with children, I am just really excited about your project!
posted by alchemist at 12:22 AM on August 30, 2018

Make a playlist of music from the country in question to accompany your cooking time. Lots of great ideas for both food and accompanying music to be found in the Ethnomusicologist's Cookbook.
posted by dr. boludo at 5:42 AM on August 30, 2018

"What's the national animal of "? (Spoiler: They're all awesome!)
posted by Harald74 at 7:23 AM on August 30, 2018

Response by poster: I'm working on putting a template together now and can post it when it's done. :)

I don't want to load them down with too much work/homework ... I sort-of want them to have a glimpse of the country to pique their interest with a few interesting facts to go find, but not turn it into a major research project, which will suck the fun out of it.

We are definitely seeking out appropriate restaurants (as time and funds allow!). Probably I'll go to the markets on my own, though, because they'll often be longer trips to farther away, which I'll do when they're at school. They have after-school activities and weekend activities and just finding the time for a restaurant trip may be a bit tricky! Music from the country to accompany dinner is definitely part of the plan!

As for why we're hopping continents, this is also to make me interested in cooking again, and cooking from one country to the next to the next comparing closely related cuisines sounds like torture to me! Part of the whole reason for the project is I'm bored of cooking the same things, so doing the same thing month after month sounds like a nightmare. I'd rather hop around where our fancy takes us and eat some diverse foods from all over the world. (Also they'd just pick all countries with tacos, and demand tacos. For comparison purposes, of course.) As to big countries with many regions ... if they pick somewhere like India or China I guess I'll just pick a region and give it a try. There's a lot of countries and we're only doing one a month! We can always decide to try several regional cuisines if it suits our fancy. But yeah, I'm aiming more for loose, fun, interesting, whimsical, and flexible rather than complete and comprehensive. And cooking at the nexus of things that are new to us, sound good, my kids will eat, and are within my cooking capabilities, so we'll see how all that goes!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:13 PM on August 31, 2018

Response by poster: First Draft of template -- I made the decision to try to keep it to two pages, so I left off chief exports and some other things even though I really wanted to include them.

Here's an example of how Guatemala will look (that's what they've picked for our first country). I'll have them put the capital on the map and color in various biomes/environments, and write the "key" for the biomes under environment.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:57 PM on August 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

so awesome. what a clever idea and so fun. Report back!! I'd love to hear what dishes you choose as you go round the world and how your kids react.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:13 AM on September 1, 2018

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