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Baby's First Cup of Masala Chai?

by Leena D. Saini

Dried fish oatmeal for breakfast?  It’s not everyone’s idea of a mild starter food, but it’s what babies in Japan commonly eat, sometimes topped with delicately flaked salmon, umeboshi (pickled plums) or freshly grated ginger with a drizzle of honey.


            Babies around the world, of course, eat very differently than we do in the United States, and are exposed to all sorts of ingredients and spices at an early age -- from curried lentils in India, to tomato and onion mieliepap (ground maize porridge) in South Africa, to salmon provençal in France.  Often as early as 6 months.  In a short time, these little ones simply eat whatever their parents are eating only chopped or mashed into baby-sized portions.   


            This is a very different attitude from parents in the United States, who are taught to avoid spice and strong flavors in favor of rice cereal and bland but “safe” puréed fruits and vegetables.  When my little one, Kirina, was ready to start solids at four months, I followed my pediatrician’s instructions and gave her rice cereal.  Though a little voice in the back of my head told me real food should never come out of a box, I was so excited that I bought Kirina a special spoon, a cute pink bowl, and set up the camera for the cheeky smile I expected after the first bite.  I opened the box and was shocked.  The contents looked like instant potatoes and the package directions said to “reconstitute” the flakes with milk or water. 


            “Reconstitute.”  Now there is an appetizing word. 


            I prepared the cereal as directed and gave her a spoonful. 


            She spat it out.  With gusto


            Of course, I thought perhaps this was normal for her first solid meal.  Except that on day two she spat it out again.  Day three, four and five went the same way.  I felt so defeated!  Here my little foodie-to-be was not taking to solids and certainly not enjoying the eating experience as I had hoped.


            Then I tasted the pasty mush we were feeding her and nearly spit it out myself.  To use one of Kirina’s new words, “yuck.”  If I would not eat this bland mush, why would she?


            Sadly, this is a common first food experience here in the United States, and it’s only the beginning.  After (hopefully) mastering the ability to digest cardboard mush, babies then graduate to jarred, watery, strained foods such as peas or carrots also devoid of any zest, creativity or flavor (often oxidized into a dull, muddy color by the time they reach the jar). 


            While it’s true that one must be careful and ever patient when introducing food to babies, one thing is certain: depriving them of full-flavored food will only set them up to shun variety and flavor as they get older.  The evidence is all around us.  Have you ever browsed the children’s menu at a nice restaurant?  You will find macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets and French fries.  Here in the United States we presume that children will have no interest in the offerings on the adult menu, and that they’ll naturally be picky eaters, shunning too-strong flavors or healthy ingredients. 


            The opposite is true in other countries, say in Japan, where a young child is often seen eating sushi with wasabi alongside their parents.   In fact, during a recent family trip to France, it was common to see children snacking on brie, water crackers and onion quiche alongside their picnicking parents, or eating salad with colorful vegetables.  In other countries, dining out of a jar or eating off a “kiddie” menu is simply not an option.


            How can we in the West tantalize our babies’ taste buds like these parents around the world?  One simple way is to spice it up!  You almost can’t start too early.  There are, of course, spices that are more “baby-friendly” than others and these are the ones to focus on when introducing new tastes to your little one.  “Baby-friendly” spices are mild and palatable, such as cinnamon, cardamom, saffron, nutmeg, basil, oregano and thyme, to name a few. 


            Introducing the seasoning is simple:


            When your baby becomes comfortable with a certain food, say mashed banana or applesauce, kick it up a notch by adding a pinch of this or that from your baby’s spice cabinet.  Try these yummy pairings for very young babies:


  • ground cinnamon or cardamom with mashed bananas
  • a few threads of saffron stirred into apple or mango sauce
  • dried basil with roasted carrot purée


            Over time you can add multiple seasonings and different ingredients to broaden baby’s palate, working up to full-seasoned meals – even adding a tiny drop of hot sauce or vinegar as fits the occasion.  Try fresh squeezed lemon or lime juice with vegetable purées (vary the vegetable also—instead of carrots, try parsnips with dill; instead of spinach, try kale with garlic) or a dash of fish sauce to soups and meats (think salmon with lemon or chicken with coconut milk).  Think of flavors you enjoy and incorporate them into your baby’s meals.


            Just remember to go slowly and don’t give up when introducing baby to a new ingredient or spice.  One of the most common mistakes parents make is assuming their baby doesn’t like something because they spit it out.  Taste buds are like anything else in the body, growing and developing at their own pace.  They simply need practice in recognizing and appreciating new flavors. 


            Parents around the world are raising adventurous eaters, one bite at a time!  We too can raise non-picky eaters, simply by nurturing our children’s taste buds as we do our own.  Think outside the jar when you are preparing or serving your baby’s first meals.  As they say, variety is the spice of life.  No matter your age! 




Masala Chai Oatmeal


(Suitable for babies ages 4 months and older)


            Cardamom is one of the spices used to make masala chai, the popular Indian tea drink.  Translated literally, masala chai means tea (chai) mixed with spices (masala).  Chai is drunk several times a day in India.  It is typically prepared by boiling milk, water, tea and a variety of spices including cinnamon, clove, cardamom and other spices (depending on the region in India). 


            But my baby can’t (and shouldn’t) drink tea, you say.  No worries, because mine can’t either!  I thought, however, it would be a great idea to take some of the chai spices and mix them into a yogurt and oatmeal combination.  My husband and I can drink grown-up chai for breakfast and my daughter can have her own version.



Organic baby oatmeal cereal, flakes or homemade

Formula, breast milk or organic whole milk yogurt (when allowed by your pediatrician)

1 pinch ground cinnamon

1 pinch ground cardamom

1 pinch ground or freshly grated ginger



1.  Prepare baby oatmeal according to directions on box.  This is usually done with breast milk or formula.  Alternatively, you can use a few spoons of organic whole milk yogurt mixed with formula, breast milk or a little water to reach your desired consistency.  If you have the time, you can use your favorite homemade oatmeal recipe and thin it out with some milk.


2.  Add one pinch each of ground cinnamon, ground cardamom, and ground ginger.  I have used a tiny amount of fresh ginger root as well, which my little one loves.  Check with your baby!  Stir well and serve warm or at room temperature.


Serving size depends on the amount of oatmeal you prepare.





Indian Kichdi (Lentil-Rice Porridge)


(Suitable for babies ages 6 months and older)


            Kichdi is an Indian comfort food—a warm, inviting dish of rice and lentils (called dal in India).  Most Indian children, including myself, grew up eating their Mom’s version of this dish (especially comforting on rainy days, sick days, or days where you just want an extra hug).  Nourishing and versatile, you can eat it plain, with seasonings, or even with vegetables added in. 


            Rather than jarred foods, kichdi is among the first meals a baby eats in India as it is easy to digest, nutritious (kichdi is high in protein and fiber) and simple for Mom and Dad to make.  You can use any kind of lentil you wish, but the recipe below uses the most quick-cooking kinds (you can find these lentils in Asian supermarkets or even in the ethnic foods aisle of your local grocery store).  Add a spoonful of ghee (clarified butter) for extra taste.  See flavor notes below for more information about ghee.



½ cup masoor or moong dal

½ cup organic brown or white basmati rice

2 cups water

1 pinch ground turmeric

1 pinch salt, optional

½ teaspoon butter or ghee, optional



1.  In a 2-quart saucepan, combine lentils and rice and rinse thoroughly in 2 to 3 exchanges of water.  This will remove any dust or impurities.  After the last rinse, add 2 cups of water, turmeric and salt. 


2.  Bring to a boil over medium-high heat.  Lower heat to medium-low and cook until very soft, about 15 minutes.  The mixture should be porridge-like in consistency.  Add more water if you find it is drying out. 


3.  Let mixture cool and purée in blender for extra smooth consistency.  You can leave mixture as is for older babies.  Serve warm with ghee or butter on top if desired.



Makes about 1 cup.



Flavor Notes:

            As baby gets used to this dish, add frozen mixed vegetables, sautéed onions, and a pinch of garam masala during the cooking process.  (Garam (hot) masala (spice mix)is a mixture of ground spices used in Indian cooking (though it doesn’t have to be hot, necessarily).  Each region in India has its own version of this mix, but it is generally comprised of cumin seeds, coriander seeds, cinnamon, clove, cardamom, turmeric and black peppercorns).  This dish adapts well to a variety of seasonings and flavors from different ingredients.

            Ghee is simply clarified butter.  It is made by heating butter, and letting the water evaporate while the butter fat separates out.  You can find prepared ghee in Asian grocery markets, health food stores, and even some regular grocery stores. 

            It is also simple to make: take any measure of butter and heat on low-medium heat in a small saucepan until you reach a gentle boil.  Lower heat and simmer until white foamy solids appear on top, about 5 minutes.  The clear liquid under the foam is the ghee.  Remove from heat and allow to cool.  Skim off solids from top and pour ghee into a separate, preferably glass jar. 




Mango Applesauce with Saffron


(Suitable for babies ages 6 months and older)


        Saffron is a beautiful and aromatic spice that is popular in Persian, Indian, Turkish and European cuisines.  The taste is unique, a bit sweet, and the color of the saffron infuses itself into whatever dish you are making.  In Spanish paella, for instance, the beautiful orange color you see is created with saffron.  Saffron grows from a special type of iris flower.  It takes 75,000 flowers to harvest only 1 pound of saffron!  Hence it is a very prized spice. 

        Saffron was one of the first spices I introduced to my daughter.  She loved it.  The red-orange color it imparts is so eye-catching for a little one’s eyes.  The flavor is also sweet and mild, making it a great introductory spice for baby. 

        I created this particular purée because I wanted to spice up the basic applesauce jars that are in the markets.  Applesauce is wonderful, but it gets even better with a few additions and gives your baby some healthy and different tastes.  The simplicity of this purée really allows the saffron flavor to come through.



2-3 strands, Spanish saffron

1 cup homemade applesauce, or 1 jar of baby applesauce

1 cup frozen mango chunks or

1 fresh mango, peeled and cut into large chunks

1 ounce water, breast milk or formula




1.  Soak 2-3 saffron threads in a few tablespoons of warm water.  This will allow the saffron to release its flavor and color.  Mash threads lightly with back of spoon until color begins to release. 


2.  Place mango chunks in blender with applesauce, saffron mixture and water or milk.  Blend until a smooth purée is formed.  Serve cool or at room temperature.



Flavor Notes:

            Homemade applesauce is easy! For a small amount of sauce, take three apples (any type will do, but the McIntosh variety works extremely well for baby food), core, peel and slice them evenly.  Place in a small saucepan with a few spoonfuls of water, cover, and cook on low heat until apples turn into sauce.  It’s that simple!


Makes about 2 cups.




Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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