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May 18, 2008 11:15 AM

Do babies get spicy food in your "native" cuisine?

Our son just turned one year old, and our pediatrician says we can start feeding him "food from the table - whatever you're eating, just in smaller bites." Trouble is, I think she's assuming we eat a typical Anglo-american diet - we're both from more or less Euro-American backgrounds (both Midwesterners, one by way of German-Irish, one by way of Russian-Polish-Jewish) with correspondingly bland ancestral cuisines. Our doctor's (I'm guessing) eastern-european Jewish American herself... so I think when she says "whatever you're eating" she expects that that's meat and potatoes, maybe some Italian food....

Actually, we make a lot of hot and spicy food - Southeast Asian, Mexican, Chinese, etc. Since we're the first generation in both of our families to cook and eat this way at home, we don't have any family wisdom or cultural knowledge to go on in terms of when it's okay to start giving spicy food to the baby.

So I'm wondering if there are any folks out there who come from spicy-food cultures who can advise me. If you're Thai, Indian, Chinese, Mexican (by descent) - is it typical to give babies spicy food as soon as they're ready to eat solids? Is it something you ease babies into?


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  1. I think your observation of the doctor's assumption sounds correct.

    I am born and raised with a 'spicy' cuisine (keeping in mind that spices and heat are not the same thing); and I am raising my children with the same cuisine, though like you we eat a much greater variety than our parents or gps did.

    Yes, we do ease into it, by taking out a little of the same food that we are making for ourselves, but at an earlier stage of cooking before the spices are added, and then feeding the child. You start feeding babies this way when they begin solid food. A pinch of some digestive spices , e.g. ajwain, hing, are added to baby food to help them to digest some of the new foods. That also starts getting them accustomed to more flavorful food (rather than relying heavily on salt).

    Then there are some specific mild foods that are eaten by both adults and babies, so those can be shared without any modifications. Anyway, at home, families usually eat 'home cooking' which contains far fewer spices and is lighter than restaurant or party food. This is more suitable for kids, older persons, everybody really. You build up from there.

    Having said that, these kids routinely eat many more spices than their Anglo counterparts (e.g. cumin, turmeric, mustard seeds, curry leaves, hing, etc). The oil and chili (red or green) levels are kept almost zero for children or anyone with a sensitive stomach.

    We sort of get into the fifth gear of spice only by our teens I guess :)

    Even with other cuisines (e.g. Chinese, Thai, Mexican, etc.) we would feed these to slightly older children (e.g. age 5 or 7 and above) and would make their portion way less spicy than the adults' version. But the children get the same veggies etc.

    1. I think the distinction between heat and spice is a very good one. Introducing your baby to spices and flavors is a great start. There is definitely no rush in introducing your baby to hot and spicy foods. At the same time, if there is no need to serve different foods to your baby unless there are issues with food allergies. My 2yr old daughter eats many dishes with more herbs and spices, but not spicy. She gets some heat in her dishes because I often cook with ginger. Cinnamon is a great baby spice as it is provides a sweet warmth. I don't know what benefits or consequences are in feeding a baby hot and spicy food. I just figure spicier foods are disturbing enough to many adults, more so with babies. You're going to be the best judge. Just remember spicy going in will result in spicy going out. So if your baby is already fussy during diaper changes, I would hold back on the heat.

      I was raised on spicier and acidic flavors. My parents always put a few whole thai bird chilies in our soup or stews and closer to the end of the cooking. My father would fish it out and put the chilies in his bowl of soup. We would get some heat. When I was 5 or 6, my father let me try some wasabi. He was prepared with a glass of fruit punch. But he explained exactly where I would feel the heat and talked me straight through till the heat disappeared. Easing into hot and spicy is probably safer.

      1. I was eased into spicy and fiery southern India food as a child. Mother says I ate mix of bland and adult-spicy foods by age 1-1.5 yrs and was eating everything adults ate by age 2-3. Her friend was giving 8-9 mths old baby adult-spiced food at some meals, about one per day, with no adverse effects. I mean with chile peppers and everything, hotter than some adults can eat, and she (the baby) really liked it.

        I have some cousins who could not tolerate adult-spiced food until ages 8-10 yrs and were given food without chile peppers until then, but still otherwise seasoned same as adult food. But I also have some cousins who learnt to enjoy a variety of spices and chile peppers very early, during infancy. About fifty-fifty it seems, it varies from child to child. Try small amounts. If your baby reacts well and doesn't suffer any digestive problems, you can continue easing him in.

        We always had yogurt and rice at meals and we ended all meals with yogurt, often mixed with some rice. This soothes the tongue and the digestion. And helps with acidity, for elders.

        I always thought it strange that westerners think it's normal for children to refuse all strong flavorings at table and they prepare so many separate meals for the children. As if children are a separate species needing a totally separate type of food. We ate meals very similar or identical to what the adults ate, throughout my childhood. What was on the table, was on the table, and we could choose only from that. Given this there were always curd (yogurt) and rice at meals to mix with small amounts of other foods if we really could not handle them. As Rasam says, old people and children are often fed in similar ways because they are more sensitive, both the palate and the digestion.

        1 Reply
        1. re: tocsin

          My father always cooked heavily seasoned food, but stopped using heat when I was born and didn't introduce chilies into our diet until my brother and I were starting grade school. Both of us had initially bad reactions to heat (the first chili we were fed was a bird's eye) which left us fearful of peppers, but we turned to a gradual approach with plenty of yogurt and South Asian sweets on hand to dull the burn. It wasn't until about middle school that we were able to eat without relying on sugar and dairy as crutches.

        2. Korean babies are brought to kimchi very early on. As soon as the kid can chew, they are given small bits of washed kimchi, kimchi that has been rinsed of the chile sauce. As the addiction begins to take hold, the kimchi is rinsed less and less until the child is up to full potency. This could take months or years. Similar process occurs with kochuchang and kochukaru, the chile pepper paste and chile pepper powder.

          Koreans could not imagine depriving their beloved children of the world's greatest food substance, kimchi!

          1. I really like this topic because for me it brings up the issue of educating a child's palate from a young age. Not only in terms of spice and heat, but also in terms of different vegetables etc.
            I know there have been recent studies where they say that picky eating habits are genetically influenced, but I don't know that I buy that. I see so many parents around me dumbing down their children's foods because they assume they won't like certain things.
            What do you all think?

            8 Replies
            1. re: HungryRubia

              I agree completely they should start early. We made a decision very early on that our kids would not get dumbed down food. They never ate jarred baby food...instead, we cooked fruits and veggies, ran them through the food processor, and froze portions in ice cube trays. Later, we moved up to things like veal stew and sauteed flounder, gradually making them less and less pureed. (Seriously, did you ever taste jarred baby food, especially any of the meat versions? Why you you give you kid something that would make you gag?). And I'll never forget the look of revelation on my daughter's face when we noticed her staring at us eating dinner and licking her chops, and we gave her cous-cous drizzled with the juice from the stake cutting board, and tiny little miced pices of must have been the look the first caveman had when he discovered fire!

              As I recall, they went thru that phase in a few months, and were on too finely cut grown up food. Chinese food was a big hit, too...chicken with veggies, etc.

              Fast forward to last night, and my 6 and 8 year olds were sitting at the sushi bar, eating eel, yellowtail and tuna sashimi, and tobiko (flying fish eggs), knowing exactly what they were (no "crunchy ball" euphemisms), while the chefs, waitresses, and other patrons smiled and shook their heads. They get excited about bok choy, broccoli rabe, and kale, Indian food, chimmichurri, mussels meunire (sp?), and linguine with (manila) clam sauce

              Start 'em early, don't give 'em junk, no special kiddie meals (no child ever stared itself to death in the presence of food), and they'll never look back!

              1. re: HungryRubia

                I agree - I know many parents who just assume their kids will not eat the same stuff as the adults, so they don't offer and or the kids don't eat it. we have a couple other sets of friends who offer their children pretty much everything, and those children will try it, even if they end up not liking it. I think it's as much environment as anything else. esp if the parents are fussy eaters.

                We had a poem on the wall growing up about "children live what they learn". it didn't mention food, but it could have! :)

                1. re: HungryRubia

                  My daughter (2 1/2) eats everything that we eat, though we do lay off the heat if we're having something we'd normally make spicy-hot. It would be hard to keep her from eating what we eat even if we wanted to, because she always wants to taste what's on Mommy and Daddy's plates, even if it's exactly the same was what's on her plate. She loves vegetables -- once at the grocery store she grabbed a bell pepper off the display and bit into it before I could stop her, and I once barely prevented her from doing the same with a jalapeno. Then there's the time when I found her chewing on a baguette that was sticking up out of the shopping cart.

                  As for hot foods, I won't repeat the anecdote, but if you're curious about her attitude, search chowhound for "stabasco."

                  I feel very lucky that she's such an adventurous eater -- definitely a chowpup! I like to think this is because we've always expected her to like a variety of foods, and we try to present anything new as a treat. But I think it's also partly determined (not necessarily genetic), and here's why: she has a cousin two years older who, if anything, was encouraged to eat a wider variety of foods early on than our daughter. But alas, our niece was always a relatively picky eater and has become pickier as she's gotten older -- my sister-in-law was astonished at some of the things my daughter was eating last time they visited. So I think it's probably a combination of a lot of factors, including what the mother eats while pregnant and breastfeeding. It's even possible that taking a somewhat slower approach to introducing new foods than my in-laws did worked better in developing our daughter's interest in new foods. But who knows?

                  1. re: HungryRubia

                    good point. I have no kids myself, but I was recently at a friend's home who has two children, one of which is pre-school age. My friend had layed out a couple of dips, hummus i think, and some cheesey thing (maybe that store bought artichoke asiago stuff). Anyway, the little girl wanted to try everything, and before she even went near the hummus, her mother piped up and said "you won't like that"..........well shocker....she didn't. Why not let the kids learn for themselves?

                    1. re: im_nomad

                      Yi! If she tasted it and didn't like it, what would be the harm?

                      Some other parent in our cicle told us that there was some sort of research that kids have to be taste a food X number of times (I forget what X was) before they start to like it. I'm not sure how you'd research something like that, and obviously it must vary from child to child. But if you discourage kids from trying things, not only is it impossible to know whether they would have liked them, but they won't have the opportunity to *learn* to like them.

                      1. re: jlafler

                        "Yi! If she tasted it and didn't like it, what would be the harm?"

                        More harm if she likes it! I recall when we were younger, my brother hated crab and shrimp. My mother and I encouraged this dislike, because it meant more for us!! "Oh, no, you'll hate that, it has crab in it, eat this beef instead...". He caught on as he got older, and when he finally decided he liked shellfish, our food bill shot through the roof!

                      2. re: im_nomad

                        There is a very strong correlation between likes and dislikes of parents and their children - but it's not genetic; the kids understand much more and can read expressions better than most parents give them credit for. Parents should try not give ANY negative input re: new and different foods if they want their children to experiment with new tastes.

                        I also think people give up too easily and think their children's tastes are set in stone. My toddler's preferences seem to change daily. Avocado was one of his first foods, then he refused it for months, now he's back to eating it again. Right now he loves asparagus and I'm just hoping it lasts until the end of the season.

                        Thanks for the Topic GDS, I was also curious and didn't know when I could start bringing back the heat. Maybe I'll start very, very slowly this summer.

                      3. re: HungryRubia

                        This reminds me of an argument I had with a friend of mine once at a Japanese restaurant (long before either of us had children). There was a little girl (around 3 or so) beside us eating edamame with her parents and I commented that it was nice to see her trying it and my friend said 'oh come on, she's a kid, give her a hot dog!' I argued that I didn't see why - just because a child is a Caucasian American/Canadian doesn't mean they can't enjoy a variety of foods from various cultures! I really hope when I have kids they learn to eat the wide variety of foods we like - which rarely (if ever) features hot dogs!