Ranjini Rao and Ruchira Ramanujam on food inspired by children’s books in ‘Book Worms & Jelly Bellies’

I was nine when I devoured Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five titles one summer vacation. The adventures of Julian, Dick, George, Anne and Timmy enticed me as much as all that delicious food they were getting to eat. The books have a way of making readers yearn for large helpings of chocolate cake, éclairs, scones, sandwiches slathered with butter, pies, tarts… just about everything.

Some of the most popular books for children make us ravenous enough to reach out to the next best snack we can lay our hands on.

Bengaluru-based friends Ranjini Rao and Ruchira Ramanujam saw their daughters go through this phase, poring over books and discussing food. They relived their own childhood memories and felt they needed to do a little more than talk about food or recreate some of the dishes in their own kitchens. So they wrote a book — the visually appetising Book Worms & Jelly Bellies (Hachette; ₹399).

Page turner

The authors give us 50 recipes inspired by 50 children’s titles. The book is divided into three sections — recipes for children of 3 to 5 years, 6 to 9 and 10 to 14 years — and encourages children to try out these recipes, from savoury nibbles to desserts, with adult supervision.

In the 3 to 5 years section, there are ‘Honey-Crunch Snack Bites’, inspired by Winnie’s large appetite in Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree. Peanuts, honey, oats, milk powder, chocolate chips, roasted almonds and dried cranberries go into making the sweet treat. Alongside, you get an introduction to Winnie’s appetite, a fun fact on how the name came about and tips to enhance the dessert.

Fun at work

Ranjini Rao and Ruchira Ramanujam on food inspired by children’s books in ‘Book Worms & Jelly Bellies’

Rao and Ramanujam have had fun working on the book. “Our daughters’ tastes in reading were different, but they shared a common love for food. Ruchira and I felt it would be interesting to have a book that looks at food in the Indian context to complement children’s stories,” shares Rao.

They began selecting titles and working on recipes before arriving at the final 50. Permissions were sought from authors and publishers. Some were welcoming of the idea, while they hit a roadblock with others. Rao and Ramanujam rue not being able to publish a recipe inspired by the Harry Potter series. But there’s the much-loved Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland-inspired Psychedelic Pinwheels, paying homage to Alice’s magical world.

In the section for younger kids, the recipes are simple and rely on visual presentation. Caterpillar Crunch Salad, that complements Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, has slices of cucumber shaped like a caterpillar, a tomato slice for the caterpillar’s head, chironji seeds for the eyes and a shard of almond for the mouth. For older kids, the recipes are slightly elaborate, tapping into their inquisitiveness to learn baking and plating.

Health first

“We wanted to give simple recipes that use easily available ingredients. We are particular about healthy food. We ruled out white flour, white sugar, artificial food colours and used dates and jaggery instead,” says Ramanujam.

Rao and Ramanujam earlier authored Around the World with the Tadka Girls (Westland), and their passion for food and writing about food began when they met each other in Chicago, in 2007. “We met while walking down to a community potluck,” Rao remembers. She was a part of The Great Shakes writing group and had written a column titled ‘Chicago Blues’ for a leading daily. Ramanujam, on the other hand, admits that she was more of a reader than a writer, until she and Rao began blogging about food (tadkapasta.wordpress.com). Ramanujam returned to India in 2011 and Rao followed suit a year later.

Tried and tested

For Book Worms & Jelly Bellies, the duo did recipe trials for eight months. They worked with a Google spreadsheet and penned down all their ideas, even if one of them had a Eureka moment in the middle of the night.

Rao’s daughter is now 12 and Ramanujam’s, 14. “My daughter is a voracious reader to the extent that she once suggested we sell the television and buy more books. Our daughters’ love for food, from bread and jam to pumpkin pies, made us write this book,” says Ramanujam.

Besides international titles, there’s an endearing effort at recreating simple Indian childhood treats. The Royal Bengal Tiger Striped Cake is inspired by Yann Martel’s Life of Pi; Tangy Tamarind Pops is Rao’s favourite childhood tamarind treat re-imagined from RK Narayan’s Malgudi Days; and Avalakki Pavalakki is inspired by Krishna’s love for poha in Devdutt Pattanaik’s An Identity Card for Krishna. And, maybe Mowgli would enjoy The Jungle Book-inspired Jungle Pizza!

Sesame Carrot Fries

(Inspired by The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter)

For children 3 to 5 years

Serves 2; Preparation time: 20 minutes; baking time: 30 minutes

Ranjini Rao and Ruchira Ramanujam on food inspired by children’s books in ‘Book Worms & Jelly Bellies’

Ingredients

3 large Carrots (cut into thick strips)

1tsp and 1tbsp Oil

½ tsp Coriander powder

A pinch of Red chilli powder

A pinch of Turmeric

A pinch of Garam masala

Salt to taste

1tsp Roasted sesame seeds

Kitchen gear: Oven, baking tray, parchment/baking paper or foil, scissors, pastry brush (optional), large mixing bowl, spoon, tongs and serving platter.

Method: Preheat the oven to 200 C. Cut a sheet of parchment paper the size of the baking tray. Place it on the tray and set aside. Or use a large piece of aluminium foil to line the tray. Then pour one teaspoon of oil on it and spread using a pastry brush. Set aside.

In a large bowl, pour a tablespoon of oil. Add coriander powder, chilli powder, turmeric, garam masala, salt and sesame seeds to the oil and stir. Tip in the carrots and toss well. Arrange these in a single layer on the prepared baking tray and bake in the oven for about 30 minutes or until the fries are tender and just start to brown. Remove the tray from the oven and carefully transfer the hot fries to a serving dish using tongs. Serve hot with creamy yoghurt dip.

Yippee-dip: To make the yoghurt dip, whisk plain yoghurt and season it with salt, white pepper, cumin powder, sugar and grated garlic.

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