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Stock Your Spice Cabinet: The Middle East, North Africa, and India

Lessons on geography, culture, and climate can start in your pantry.


No matter where we live, when we cook, we’re essentially all doing the same thing: transforming proteins, starches, and produce into our daily meals. How we prepare these core ingredients tells a story about a particular culture’s history, geography, climate, religions, traditions, and tastes. In Ethiopia, chicken and onions might get a long simmer in a Dutch oven with ginger, butter, honey wine, and a generous hit of hot berbere spices for doro wat, a fiery stew considered the country’s national dish. In Sweden, the same staples are more likely destined for a quick stint in a sauté pan with a creamy dill sauce.

The takeaway? Exploring world cuisines is a great way to teach your kid how to be an adventurous eater, a resourceful cook, and an inquisitive human. To launch the journey, we’ve compiled a global-pantry cheat sheet for the Middle East, North Africa, and India.

Though the cuisines across these vast regions/countries are distinctly different, they share many of the same spices. Cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and cayenne flavor ground lamb or beef for Lebanese kofta kebabs, get simmered into Moroccan chicken or veggie tagines, and form the backbone of saucy curries from the Indian state of Kerala.

The major difference, very generally, is that the Middle East and North Africa have more of a kinship with their Mediterranean neighbors, producing dishes like herb-y tabbouleh and grilled meats, while India—with its penchant for coconut milk, hot peppers, and dried and fresh mangoes—shares more of its menu with its Southeast Asian neighbors.

Basic pantry: cumin, coriander, cayenne, cinnamon, clove, cardamom, nutmeg, saffron, allspice, paprika, turmeric, orange flower water and/or rosewater, garbanzo beans, rice, lentils, plain yogurt, dates, and honey.

For the Middle East, add: sumac, za’atar, thyme, oregano, sesame seeds, olives, wheat berries, tahini, halloumi, and pomegranate molasses.

For North Africa, add: preserved lemons, harissa, and couscous.

For India, add: mustard seeds, ghee, paneer, coconut milk, mango chutney, naan, and hot, fresh chiles.

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  1. Step 1

    Pick a standard staple (meat, tofu, beans, potatoes, veggies) and make a tasty meal with your child, using your global ingredients—follow a recipe he found or go Iron Chef-style. Note: Religions in these areas impact the meats people eat. For instance, Hindus and Sikhs don’t eat beef, and Muslims, Jews, and followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo (Christian) Church don’t eat pork or, in some cases, shellfish. You don’t have to adhere to these rules, of course, but this might be your moment to give lamb or goat a whirl.

  2. Step 2

    Use your global ingredients to add unexpected flavor to a dish your child already knows, like scrambled eggs, mashed potatoes, grilled cheese, mac and cheese, or burgers.

  3. Step 3

    Explore the area online or in books, listen to the native music as you cook, and sit down for a traditional meal—for instance, eat your doro wat with only your right hands using pieces of sour, spongey injera to scoop it up. Then, talk about the why behind what you’re eating and how you’re eating it. Even better? Invite that new family next door to join you and make your own world just a little bit bigger.