How to encourage children to enjoy spicy food: Are they more adventurous than we give them credit for?

Cooking for children can be tricky at the best of times; add spice and you're almost guaranteed a fuss. As experts suggest that tolerance can be built while still in the womb, John O'Connell is keen to start his own family off early – cooling yoghurt at the ready!

John O'Connell
Tuesday 03 November 2015 18:54
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The first time I ate spicy food, I was nine or 10 and having a picnic in Hyde Park. We – my mother, sister and I – lived in the West Midlands but had made a rare trip to London to see "Auntie" Sheila, a devoutly Catholic family friend who fascinated us as children because she claimed to have been visited by an angel. In deference to Sheila's fancy London ways – the night before, she'd cooked broccoli! – our mother had jumped, blindfolded, out of her comfort zone and bought some tandoori chicken legs from Marks & Spencer to go with the Florida salad and caramel delight desserts.

"Eurgh, what the hell's this?" I remember asking, as I fished one out of its plastic tray.

"Spicy chicken," my mother replied. "It comes all the way from Tandoor in India." She leaned forward and whispered sharply: "Don't say 'what the hell' in front of Auntie Sheila."

This was the early 1980s, not long after M&S had revolutionised food retail with its range of chilled ready-meal curries. Thankfully, Britain is an infinitely more cosmopolitan place than it was 35 years ago, when its insular, safety-first food culture seemed to bear out Mrs Beeton's theory that spices are "not intended by nature for the inhabitants of temperate climes". (This didn't stop her including several curry recipes in The Book of Household Management in 1861.)

You would struggle nowadays to find many white British 10-year-olds who haven't at least tasted spicy food. Most, I'd wager, have been eating it since they were tiny.

Chances are, though, that this feat hasn't been achieved without effort. In my experience, small children quickly grow to love warming, aromatic spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg, especially in the context of porridge and apple crumble. Cumin and ginger they will tolerate in small doses. But they are much less convinced by hot spices such as chilli. I remember going cockily off-piste with one for-the-kids chilli con carne recipe, augmenting the paprika with a dusting of crushed red chilli flakes, just to see what they made of it... It didn't go down well.

Capsaicin, the active ingredient in chilli, works by stimulating pain receptors. Gastroenterologists think children's pain receptors are more easily stimulated than those of adults. Lacking any concept of "chillihead" macho cool, children see no reason to eat foods that hurt them. Not at first, anyway – but early experimentation can and should open up new taste pathways so that before you know it, they're beating a path to Nando's.

Actually, many people who start off hating chillis later grow to love them, possibly because, as the behavioural psychologist Alexandra W Logue observes, "the pain that accompanies eating chilli seems dangerous but is actually safe". So our instinctive craving for sensation is satisfied, but without the risk to life that comes with, say, bull running or Base jumping.

Some experts think that if babies are introduced to spicy flavours through their mothers' breast milk they will be more inclined to like them once they're weaned. This is presumably what happens in Asian and African food cultures, where children are encouraged to tolerate heat from a young age by being broken in gradually.

Preetha McCann, a finance director, was born in the south Indian state of Kerala, home of the short, white and super-hot kanthari chilli and source of most of the world's black pepper. "Kids in India eat exactly the same food as adults," she says. "But we add yoghurt to tone down the impact. When my cousins were young and we went back to Kerala to visit them, I remember noticing how much yoghurt my aunt put on their food. We'd make little rice balls with the curry and the yoghurt.

"All the curries my mum cooks now, we ate too – all the traditional Keralan foods such as prawn curry and spicy fish. With my own kids, though, I think we introduced spices a bit too late, as they don't particularly like very spicy food."

It was a similar story for the novelist and journalist Sathnam Sanghera, who grew up in Wolverhampton. "My parents are both Punjabi, so we grew up on Punjabi cuisine, with its gummy jalebis and spongy gulab jamun. When I think of my mum then, and now, it's almost always of her standing in the kitchen, her salwar kameez imprinted with flour, some saag bubbling away on the stove."

Even as a child, Sanghera loved chillis. "My grandfather, whose tastebuds were totally shot, would eat red chillis whole with his meals just so he could taste something. That inspired us to do the same. I remember trying to impress friends by eating whole green chillis at the age of about seven. But what we fetishised, weirdly, was bland Western food. Fish and chips and margarine sandwiches were regarded as real treats."

Following the advice of writers such as the family cooking expert Annabel Karmel, I've been cooking spicy food for my children since they were around a year old – starting with chilli con carne, progressing to mild korma-type dishes and beyond. My eldest, Scarlett, 11, will now eat almost anything and constantly requests Thai or Indian takeaways. Molly, just six, is more conservative and tends to use the word "spicy" to describe anything she doesn't like, especially onions, celery and courgettes. That said, both of them love a Czech rub for chicken which contains sage, paprika, black pepper and – one of the most divisive spices, this – caraway seed. So that's weird.

Before bemoaning a child's fussiness, it's worth remembering that everyone tastes things differently – so called "super-tasters" are more sensitive to bitter flavours. Also, when children reject a dish outright, what's bothering them is often more than just the food.

"It's very normal for children to suddenly decide they will eat only certain foods," says Karmel. "This is partly because of a fear of new things. It may also be your little one's way of showing her independence as she learns to feed herself. She may be testing your limits and trying to assert some control."

Karmel recommends acclimatising children to spices by adding them to meals you're confident they already enjoy, then slowly increasing the level of spiciness. "Creamy dishes are a great starting point for adding spices, such as small amounts of finely chopped chilli or some sweet chilli sauce," she says.

As my experience with caraway seeds shows, you can never predict what children are going to like. Are they more adventurous than we give them credit for? Karmel thinks so. "I've built my career on producing recipes that are anything other than bland," she says. "In fact, some of the most popular dishes in my Chilled Toddler Meal range are my Fruity Chicken Korma and Mild Chicken Tikka, which include spices such as ginger, cumin and garlic."

Many of us are slaves to inherited assumptions about what children can cope with, not to mention a nostalgic obsession with nursery food. But obsessions can be delusions. When I think back to that afternoon in Hyde Park, it isn't the gloopy, carby "English" treats that stand out for me. It's those tandoori chicken legs, in all their pinky-red, sour-sweet glory.

'The Book of Spice: From Anise to Zedoary' by John O'Connell (Profile, £14.99) is out now. @thebookofspice

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