Rise and Shine
Photographs by HANNAH WHITAKER
Text by MALIA WOLLAN
What kids around the world eat for breakfast.
Saki Suzuki, 2 ¾ years old, Tokyo
The first time Saki ate the fermented soybean dish called natto, she was 7 months old. She promptly vomited. Her mother, Asaka, thinks that perhaps this was because of the smell, which is vaguely suggestive of canned cat food. But in time, the gooey beans became Saki’s favorite food and a constant part of her traditional Japanese breakfasts. Also on the menu are white rice, miso soup, kabocha squash simmered in soy sauce and sweet sake (kabocha no nimono), pickled cucumber (Saki’s least favorite dish), rolled egg omelet (tamagoyaki) and grilled salmon.
Americans tend to lack imagination when it comes to breakfast. The vast majority of us, surveys say, start our days with cold cereal — and those of us with children are more likely to buy the kinds with the most sugar. Children all over the world eat cornflakes and drink chocolate milk, of course, but in many places they also eat things that would strike the average American palate as strange, or worse.
Breakfast for a child in Burkina Faso, for example, might well include millet-seed porridge; in Japan, rice and a putrid soybean goop known as natto; in Jamaica, a mush of plantains or peanuts or cornmeal; in New Zealand, toast covered with Vegemite, a salty paste made of brewer’s yeast; and in China, jook, a rice gruel topped with pickled tofu, strings of dried meat or egg. In Cuba, Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America, it is not uncommon to find very young children sipping coffee with milk in the mornings. In Pakistan, kids often take their milk with Rooh Afza, a bright red syrup made from fruits, flowers and herbs. Swedish filmjolk is one of dozens of iterations of soured milk found on breakfast tables across Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. For a child in southern India, the day might start with a steamed cake made from fermented lentils and rice called idli. “The idea that children should have bland, sweet food is a very industrial presumption,” says Krishnendu Ray, a professor of food studies at New York University who grew up in India. “In many parts of the world, breakfast is tepid, sour, fermented and savory.”
Doga Gunce Gursoy, 8 years old, Istanbul
The elaborate Saturday morning spread in front of Doga includes honey and clotted cream, called kaymak, on toasted bread; green and black olives; fried eggs with a spicy sausage called sucuk; butter; hard-boiled eggs; thick grape syrup (pekmez) with tahini on top; an assortment of sheep-, goat- and cow-milk cheeses; quince and blackberry jams; pastries and bread; tomatoes, cucumbers, white radishes and other fresh vegetables; kahvaltilikbiber salcasi, a paste made of grilled red peppers; hazelnut-flavored halvah, the dense dessert; milk and orange juice. While certainly more elaborate than weekday fare, this Gursoy family meal is in keeping with the hodgepodge that is a typical Turkish breakfast.
Parents who want their kids to accept more adventurous breakfasts would be wise to choose such morning fare for themselves. Children begin to acquire a taste for pickled egg or fermented lentils early — in the womb, even. Compounds from the foods a pregnant woman eats travel through the amniotic fluid to her baby. After birth, babies prefer the foods they were exposed to in utero, a phenomenon scientists call “prenatal flavor learning.” Even so, just because children are primed to like something doesn’t mean the first experience of it on their tongues will be pleasant. For many Korean kids, breakfast includes kimchi, cabbage leaves or other vegetables fermented with red chile peppers and garlic. A child’s first taste of kimchi is something of a rite of passage, one captured in dozens of YouTube videos featuring chubby-faced toddlers grabbing at their tongues and occasionally weeping.
Children, and young omnivorous animals generally, tend to reject unfamiliar foods on the first few tries. Evolutionarily, it makes sense for an inexperienced creature to be cautious about new foods, which might, after all, be poisonous. It is only through repeated exposure and mimicry that toddlers adjust to new tastes — breakfast instead of, say, dinner. That we don’t put pickle relish on waffles or eat Honey Bunches of Oats for supper are rules of culture, not of nature. As children grow, their palates continue to be shaped by the food environment they were born into (as well as by the savvy marketers of sugar cereals who advertise directly to the 10-and-under set and their tired parents). This early enculturation means a child in the Philippines might happily consume garlic fried rice topped with dried and salted fish called tuyo at 6 in the morning, while many American kids would balk at such a meal (even at dinnertime). We learn to be disgusted, just as we learn to want a second helping.
Sugar is the notable exception to “food neophobia,” as researchers call that early innate fear. In utero, a 13-week-old fetus will gulp amniotic fluid more quickly when it contains sugar. Our native sweet tooth helps explain the global popularity of sugary cereals and chocolate spreads like Nutella: Getting children to eat sugar is easy. Teaching them to eat slimy fermented soybeans, by contrast, requires a more robust and conservative culinary culture, one that resists the candy-coated breakfast buffet.
To sample the extensive smorgasbord that still constitutes breakfast around the world, Hannah Whitaker recently visited with families in seven countries, photographing some of their youngest eaters as they sat down in front of the first meal of the day.
Nathanaël Witschi Picard, 6 years old, Paris
Whenever Nathanaël stays at his father’s house, his weekday breakfast is the same. It consists of a single kiwi; tartine, an open-faced baguette with butter and blackberry jam made by his grandparents; cold cereal with milk; and freshly squeezed orange juice. (He would prefer crepes and hot chocolate, which many French children gulp down from bowls and into which they dunk their morning tartine. But Nathanaël’s father, Cédric, is health-conscious.) On weekends, Nathanaël eats croissants for breakfast and also makes his own desserts, a passion inherited from his grandfather, a pâtissier.
Emily Kathumba, 7 years old, Chitedze, Malawi
Emily lives with her grandmother Ethel on the outskirts of Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital. Because Ethel works in another family’s home — doing cleaning, cooking and child care — her extended family of nine rises before 6 a.m. to eat breakfast together before they disperse to work and school. Here, Emily is eating cornmeal porridge called phala with soy and groundnut flour; deep-fried fritters made of cornmeal, onions, garlic and chiles, along with boiled sweet potato and pumpkin; and a dark red juice made from dried hibiscus flowers and sugar. (She is fortunate; half of the children in Malawi are chronically malnourished.) When she can, Emily likes to drink sweet black tea in the mornings, a common beverage for Malawian children.
Birta Gudrun Brynjarsdottir, 3 ½ years old, Reykjavik, Iceland
Birta’s oatmeal porridge is called hafragrautur, a staple breakfast in Iceland. The oatmeal is cooked in water or milk and often served with brown sugar, maple syrup, butter, fruit or surmjolk (sour milk). Birta also takes a swig of lysi, or cod-liver oil. For part of the year, when the sun barely clears Iceland’s horizon, sunlight is a poor source of vitamin D — but the vitamin is plentiful in fish oils. (The word lysi is related to the Icelandic verb lysa, meaning ‘‘illuminate.’’) Birta’s mother, Svana Helgadottir, started giving her four children lysi when each was about 6 months, and now all of them gulp it down without complaint. Many day-care centers and preschools in Iceland dispense cod-liver oil as a regular part of the morning routine.
Viv Bourdrez, 5 years old, Amsterdam
For Viv, breakfast is a glass of milk with bread, unsalted butter and — most important — sweet sprinkles, which come in multiple flavors (chocolate, vanilla, fruit) and sizes (small, large, shavings). A government-run website promoting tourism boasts that every day the Dutch eat at least 750,000 slices of bread topped with the chocolate sprinkles called hagelslag (‘‘hailstorm’’), making it the country’s most popular bread topping. For a nation of nearly 17 million people, that’s close to 300 million slices a year of hagelslag-covered bread. In June, a successful Dutch Kickstarter campaign raised more than $11,000 to create bacon hagelslag. Viv is partial to the multihued sprinkles called vruchtenhagel (‘‘fruit hail’’), while her twin sister, Rosie, reaches for chocoladevlokken.
Aricia Domenica Ferreira, 4 years old, and
Hakim Jorge Ferreira Gomes, 2 years old, São Paulo, Brazil
Aricia’s pink sippy cup is full of chocolate milk, but her brother Hakim’s cup contains coffee (café com leite). For many Brazilian parents, coffee for kids is a cultural tradition; the taste evokes their own earliest memories. Many also believe that coffee provides vitamins and antioxidants and that a small milky serving in the morning helps their children concentrate in school. Hakim ‘‘gets more agitated after he drinks it,’’ his father, Reginaldo Aguiar Gomes, admits. ‘‘I can feel his mood change.’’ But their pediatrician told them that coffee is fine in moderation. Brother and sister are eating ham and cheese as well as pão commanteiga, bread with butter.
Phillip Kamtengo, 4 years old, and
Shelleen Kamtengo, 4 years old, Chitedze, Malawi
Phillip and his twin sister, Shelleen, start their day with a sweet, cornbread-like cake called chikondamoyo, which their grandmother, Dorothy Madise, cooks in an aluminum pot over a fire. Breakfast for the Kamtengo twins and their older siblings also includes boiled potatoes and black tea with a heaping spoonful or two of sugar.
Koki Hayashi, 4 years old, Tokyo
If Koki and his older brother had a choice, they would prefer an American-style breakfast. Occasionally, their mother, Fumi, lets them eat cold cereal and doughnuts, but she wants her children to grow up knowing what it means to eat Japanese. Here, Koki eats green peppers stir-fried with tiny dried fish, soy sauce and sesame seeds; raw egg mixed with soy sauce and poured over hot rice; kinpira, a dish of lotus and burdock roots and carrots sautéed with sesame-seed oil, soy sauce and a sweet rice wine called mirin; miso soup; grapes; sliced Asian pear; and milk.
Oyku Ozarslan, 9 years old, Istanbul
The foundation of breakfast for Oyku, a fourth grader, is brown bread. She supplements it with green and black olives, Nutella spread, sliced tomato, hard-boiled egg, strawberry jam, butter soaked in honey and an assortment of Turkish cheeses: among them, a crumbly, feta-like cheese called ezine peyniri; eski kasar, an aged, cow’s milk cheese; and tulum peyniri, a variety of cheese made of goat’s milk that was traditionally aged in a goatskin casing.
Tiago Bueno Young, 3 years old, São Paulo, Brazil
Tiago likes chocolate milk and often wakes up asking for it, but sometimes even that is hard to get excited about at 7 on a weekday morning when his mother, Fabiana, has already left for work and he still has to get ready for kindergarten. Cold cereal is the favored breakfast food of the three Young sons. Here, Tiago, the middle child, sits before cornflakes, banana cake and bisnaguinha, a sweet white bread popular with Brazilian children and served with a mild cream cheese called requeijão.
In Cuba, Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America, it is not uncommon to find very young children sipping coffee with milk in the mornings
The idea that children should have bland, sweet food is a very industrial presumption,” says Krishnendu Ray, a professor of food studies at New York University who grew up in India. “In many parts of the world, breakfast is tepid, sour, fermented and savory.”
Children begin to acquire a taste for pickled egg or fermented lentils early — in the womb, even. Compounds from the foods a pregnant woman eats travel through the amniotic fluid to her baby. After birth, babies prefer the foods they were exposed to in utero, a phenomenon scientists call “prenatal flavor learning.”
This early enculturation means a child in the Philippines might happily consume garlic fried rice topped with dried and salted fish called tuyo at 6 in the morning, while many American kids would balk at such a meal (even at dinnertime). We learn to be disgusted, just as we learn to want a second helping.
In utero, a 13-week-old fetus will gulp amniotic fluid more quickly when it contains sugar. Our native sweet tooth helps explain the global popularity of sugary cereals and chocolate spreads like Nutella: Getting children to eat sugar is easy. Teaching them to eat slimy fermented soybeans, by contrast, requires a more robust and conservative culinary culture, one that resists the candy-coated breakfast buffet.