Just try it once. If you don’t like it you won’t have to eat it again,” I tell our son. “How do you know you don’t like it if you don’t try it?” I implore. “Remember how you used to feel about sushi?” I remind him. “Think of what you’ll be missing if it’s wonderful and you’ve refused to taste it,” I beg.
And so it goes with us – badgering in the kitchen, across the dining-room table and in restaurants – as it no doubt goes with all exasperated parents and their obstinate, fussy, nine-year-old children. Yet I am mostly guilty of the same thing. I admit to being a habitual eater. I have my favourite foods, my so-called signature dishes that I make time and again, and I always return to the same restaurants where I love to eat the same dishes I’ve always loved. I don’t really enjoy surprises, or disappointments, which is why I like to stick with what I know. But I do at least taste things before I make up my mind one way or the other, which is something I’d very much like Seb to start doing. On a recent holiday to New York, I realised I’d never eaten the ubiquitous chicken and rice, which is sold from colourful halaal carts dotted all over the city. I also remembered the dish my friend Janieke had made for us.
A fan of the food writer Deb Perelman, who included a recipe for “new chicken and rice street-cart style” in her book Smitten Kitchen Every Day, Janieke recreated the famous dish, I now know, to perfection. I’d also read about it in my hero Ruth Reichl’s My Kitchen Year (she called it food-cart curry chicken). It wasn’t that I was opposed to eating street food. In fact, I pride myself on being adventurous when it comes to eating on the street, believing that this is where the most authentic flavours are to be found. I will always take a chance on it when I’m on holiday, and had often eaten New York’s cart hotdogs, a.k.a. dirty dogs (referring to the vats filled with dirty-looking boiling water that the sausage is cooked in). But for some reason I had never tried the standard office fare of many a frugal New Yorker. That needed to be rectified. So this time I did. I ordered the chicken and rice from the vendor outside the Natural History Museum, asking for both red and white sauces, as any real New Yorker would.
And right there, eating lunch, standing up on a pavement surrounded by traffic fumes, I fell in love. I did not want to share. That first bite – eaten with a plastic fork from a Styrofoam bowl – had me craving cumin-and-coriander chicken served on fragrant yellow rice throughout our trip. And I indulged regularly. Not for me the large takeaway lattes with squirts of pumpkin syrup. Nope, I was the girl walking the streets of NYC carrying bags of spicy chicken back to her hotel room. And to my credit and great joy, I made converts of my husband and son. Seb declined the red sauce and the salad, of course, but Jacques and I went full-on. Back home, it has become one of our favourite family foods that I now make in my own kitchen. I wish I didn’t have to; I wish there was a cart on our street corner, frying fragrant cumin chicken and rice while I wait.
And each time I make it, I regret all those missed opportunities when I bypassed the carts, oblivious to the deliciousness. But I’m also grateful that I now know what I’d been missing. I know better and so I will do better. And that is the reason I will continue to badger my son. And sometimes he’ll even thank me for it. As he does when he smiles at me disarmingly while taking the first bite of the spiced chicken cubes as they come hot out of the pan.