It took a sprinkle of spellworking, but a crew of young sous-chefs descended the peaks of Morocco, hovered over Cambodian rice paddies and surveyed the blue domes of Greece from their humble kitchens at home.
Armed with ladles and whisks, the Cooking Round the World campers made the most of this past year’s captivity at home. The year-round sessions, which began in person in the Bay Area pre-COVID and have expanded to include online participants from as far away as Ohio, New York and New Jersey, take young people on a field trip for their palates.
Students had the option to register for pre-recorded or live Zoom classes, choosing from among a range of countries and cuisines, and in-person classes reopened in Oakland and San Marcos when health protocols permitted.
“Embracing cultures that are not their own – that are new to them – is actually a beautiful thing, not a scary thing,” said Mindy Myers, founder and director of Cooking Round the World. “These classes have really helped children want to travel, see the world, open up their eyes to differences. I want them to embrace difference, not tolerate difference.”
Given a choice of three 10-country packages – including Lebanon, El Salvador, South Korea, Israel and Russia, among others – the pre-recorded videos offer a look at the countries’ history, language, geography, flag and famous landmarks before delving into the cuisines found among their peoples. After preparing a step-by-step cooking how-to on a chosen recipe, Myers spins a folklore from the traditions of the country in question.
Myers said combining storytelling with cooking skills helps her 6- to 14-year-old sous-chefs tell the difference between a ladle and a slotted spoon, but also appreciate the cultural undertones of the flavors and spices.
“I am hoping that children will see the world as reachable and beautiful,” she said. “I love it when children say, ‘I want to go to Morocco! I want to go to Spain!’ They are excited about what it is that they learned and tasted.”
A former principal of a public school in Alameda, Myers said children are just beginning to build awareness of the larger world around them, and they learn best with hands-on activities. Even in an online class, learning by doing builds understanding.
Beyond frozen pizza
Cooking Round the World camper Medha Rustagi, 10, said she enjoys baking cakes and muffins to the point that her mom only allows her to bake once a month.
“I’d always loved to bake, and I memorized one great recipe for banana bread,” the Cupertino resident said. “I always see my mom cooking in the kitchen, and sometimes I would just help out.”
Although her go-to dishes are Italian – macaroni and cheese, fettuccine alfredo – Medha said she loves to experiment with new dishes and expand her cooking repertoire. The camp’s focus on exploring new cuisines, and the stories behind food traditions, builds confidence in a world beyond processed foods and frozen pizzas.
“We refer to a class as a ‘cooking family,’ and then the kids sort of work in tandem and contribute as if they are a family,” Myers said. “I can say that we are educating kids in a way so that they ... can go out in the world and know how to make honey garlic chicken over saffron rice.”
For more information on Cooking Round the World, visit cookingroundtheworld.com.