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A book signing for children

Book writing for children: Laying foundations for peace

Book writing for children: Laying foundations for peace

Creative writing is peace education.

The process of creating a world on paper helps children understand the real world. When a child imagines themselves in strange situations – or better yet, when they imagine what another person would do in their story – they learn to “walk in other people’s shoes.”

A question like “What would your character feel like in the desert, looking at up at a massive pyramid” gets at a deeper question – what is it like to live in another part of the world? Suddenly, a child who has put no thought into what it would be like to be born into a different situation is considering it. Creative writing helps children learn empathy.

When done with care, creative writing is also a lesson in conflict resolution.  Writing exercises should be built around traditional story structure, meaning the children must put their characters in some sort of peril. If a character’s boat tips over, then the child must imagine a way to get their characters to safety. If two characters have a disagreement, they must resolve it (or they need to explain the fallout if they don’t – playing out consequences is an equally important lesson).

I worked with my daughter on her first book last summer and saw this learning process in action, as she took in knowledge about herself and the world at large. Here’s a video of her book reading, followed by an interview with me, her mama. The rest of this essay describes why she chose to write a book and how we approached the process.

How and why my six-year old spent last summer writing a book:

It all started at the book launch for my memoir, Life from Scratch, a few months before her birthday. There was a line of people waiting to have their books signed. Ava scampered up to my signing table, where I had my head bent over a book, and promptly announced that she wanted to autograph the books.

While I wanted to grant my five-year old (and her big brown eyes) her every whim, I couldn’t; as a rule, people want the author to sign the books.


I told her if she wanted to write a book, she could have a book signing.

Her eyes grew wide and she jumped a little, presumably with joy. And so, shortly after her sixth birthday, I set out on a summer quest to help my daughter harness her imagination with the written word.  Because of her young age, the book writing process was a delicate balance – trying to keep it fun while helping her create her BIGGEST project yet. In the end she had more than 20 illustrations and 5 chapters.

I thought it’d be fun to share what we learned in case you want to work with your child on a book.

How to help very young children write a book.

Book writing for children: Laying foundations for peace

1. Help them choose a subject and main characters.

Their book should be something they LOVE. Ava loves everything Egypt, so this was a natural fit. Almost immediately, she decided her book would be about her cat, Malky, going on an adventure to Egypt. To help inspire her imagination, we got on all fours and “walked” around outside so we could see the world from a cat’s perspective. That’s when she saw a beetle – and so the adventure included a beetle friend named Rosie.

2. Teach them basic story structure

I like to teach young children about five-part stories in very simple terms.

a) We meet our characters and something happens to start their journey
b) They take the first steps of the journey
c) The exciting part (This should be an “Oh no!” moment)
d) They take the final steps of the journey
e) We end our journey and say goodbye to our characters

Each of the 5 parts should be one sentence. Have the child write each sentence on a separate page. Then they can expand on each idea over several sentences, ultimately turning each part of the story into a short chapter for their book.

The hidden agenda?

The initial 5 sentences serve as an outline; with these sentences in place, the child will always know where they are going with their story – and they will always have a satisfying beginning and end, with something exciting in the middle!

3. Let illustrations break up the writing process

Help your child write a book

Children love to draw. Make sure they get plenty of opportunity to create illustrations for their book. They can be made on colorful paper and taped into the book at a later date. Some days this might be all they feel like doing; that’s okay.

Book writing for children: Laying foundations for peace

4. Research is your friend

Whatever topic your child chooses, and no matter how much they love it, they’ll occasionally get stuck. Maybe they’re bored. Maybe they have writer’s block. Help the story flow again by doing research with them, at home or at the library. Ava has several books on ancient Egypt so we looked through them to learn about possible things the cat and beetle could encounter. The books also inspired her drawings. That’s where we learned about goddess Hapy, a real figure in ancient Egypt, and what she looked like.

Book writing for children: Laying foundations for peace

It’s also where she got the idea to add basboosa cake to the story, a recipe traditionally enjoyed throughout the Middle East, including Egypt. (As you can see below, I helped put a copy of the recipe in the back of the book … along with info about the real cat behind her story. We served the cake at her signing, along with traditional juices and hibiscus tea).

Book writing for children: Laying foundations for peace

Basboosa cake and hibiscus tea

5. Do a little at a time

Children don’t need to try and complete a big project like this in one sitting. Ava’s book took all summer. Sometimes she worked for fifteen minutes, other times she worked for an hour and fifteen minutes. This should be fun, so don’t push your child too hard or they will resent the work and it may not get done.

6. Don’t worry about spelling.
7. Don’t worry about spelling.

Seriously. If they want to learn a word or two, fine (Ava wanted to learn Egypt and pyramid). But otherwise, trust me. The sweet spelling will be 100% cute when you look back on it, years from now. And any fussing over this sort of detail totally disrupts the creative process. Remember, the simple act of forming letters is still a challenge to many primary students… let’s save proper spelling for later.

8. Celebrate!

Celebrate your child’s success with a book signing party. We were fortunate to have Mr. Paul, a local story teller at Hardesty Regional Library, read Ava’s story. She was BEAMING – not only to celebrate with her friends but to have her words come alive with Mr. Paul’s vivacious reading. You know how kids think: Of course mom will love it, but seeing a story teller bring it to life?


A childs book signing (Book writing for children: Laying foundations for peace)

A childs book signing (Book writing for children: Laying foundations for peace)

Book writing for children: Laying foundations for peace

A childs book signing (Book writing for children: Laying foundations for peace)

9. Make copies of the book, for signing

You can make photocopies of your child’s masterpiece, or you could go one step further and have bound books made. We opted for the latter, making real keepsakes. To do this, I took photos of each spread of Ava’s book and placed them in a free book layout on Blurb* Using the softcover magazine option, each printed book cost about $5. We got extra made for Christmas presents.

*Note: This link gives me a small commission if you design and order a book from Blurb; new customers can use PHOTOMAY20 for 20% off their order this month.

A childs book signing (Book writing for children: Laying foundations for peace)

A childs book signing

10. Enjoy the finished result

Sit back and enjoy the pride and accomplishment your young child feels after writing their own book. Good luck and have fun with the process!

P.S. A few have asked and, yes, you can order a copy of The Adventures of Malky and Rosie by sweet Miss Ava Martin. The slight mark up will go towards Ava’s college fund.

P.P.S. I am developing a creative writing club for young children living in Tulsa, OK. Please contact me if you’d like to learn as plans are finalized.

Zambian Pumpkin and Peanut Oatmeal Recipe

Zambian Pumpkin n’ Peanut Oats: To keep Mermaids away

Zambian Pumpkin and Peanut Oatmeal Recipe

Forget what you know about The Little Mermaid.

Zambia’s infamous mermaid, Chitapo, is no dewy-eyed, red-haired princess. To set eyes on this fierce water spirit, paddle along the Zambian/Congolese waterways – along Lake Namulolobwe, down Victoria Falls, into any number of smaller ponds. You might even find her cresting the salty Atlantic.

How will you know it’s her?

See that shadow caught up in a whirlwind? An elusive figure sunning on a rock, with the body of a woman and the tail of a fish or serpent?

That’s Chitapo.

Mami Wata

Beware: Beautiful Chitapo is not content to observe humans from afar. Pay attention if things seem amiss in your village. Did a woven mat or a few beloved baskets vanish, then reappear a few days later? Is a neighbor’s missing collection of pots and pans now floating on the murky lake? Chitapo pushes this shiny bait in the shallows, luring unsuspecting victims to their untimely death.

Tempted to wade into the water to retrieve these prizes?
Think you can outwit, or out-muscle this water spirit?

Good luck.

"African Traditions Zambia" by Ninaras - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Zambian men in traditional clothing” by Ninaras

Even those with unflinching biceps and steam-engine thighs are unable to resist Chitapo’s iron grip.  Legend states she only has to snatch someone’s shadow to pull them in, rendering even the densest muscle as worthless as a bundle of kittens in a tuna factory.

Chitapo is particularly keen on capturing criminals – robbers, rapists and racketeers. Thanks to her quick judgement these rough types sink to new lows. Some become permanent inmates of Sandy Bottom Prison, no possibility for parole; others are fed to Muntu Mamba – a creature equal parts man and crocodile.

It would be easy to write off Chitapo as some cruel monster but – as with all good legends – this water creature redeems herself in surprising ways. That drowning child? She’ll save them. Women? Some believe they get a blank pass. Same for the loyal husband on his way home to his wife.

Come to think of it, I rather like this Chitapo creature.

Warding off Chitapo: keep your pots busy

"Lady of Zambia Makes Nshima" by Gerhard302 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Zambian woman makes Nshima” by Gerhard302

The best way to keep Chitapo from stealing your pots and pans (or YOU!) is to put them to good use. Today we’re going to do this by – big surprise – cooking.

This doesn’t sound like a big deal, until you realize that Americans eat out an average of 4.5 times per week (Zagat). That means most nights your pots and pans are in reach of Chitapo. 

I’m not gonna say you’re doomed to a watery grave unless you make this meal, but… I’m not going to say you’re not.

In praise of Zambian breakfast

Zambian Breakfast: Pumpkin and Peanut Oatmeal Recipe

As I researched a distinctive Zambian use for my pots and pans, I came across a recipe called Chipwatanga in the lovely Recipe book on Zambian Traditional Foods. This hot pumpkin porridge features ground peanuts and a touch of sugar, and is often served for breakfast. My desire to make the dish went from steady curiosity (I love pumpkin and peanuts, after all) to burning desire.

The turning point?

When I read about breakfast buffets in Zambia’s big city hotels adding a sweet scoop of chipwatanga to a piping hot bowl of oatmeal.

Sounded like the perfect treat for my daughter, who is now sporting her first pair of glasses and looking like 6 going on 16.

Zambian Breakfast: Pumpkin and Peanut Oatmeal Recipe

This Zambian Pumpkin n’ Peanut Oats is a mother’s (and a nutritionist’s) dream – high in beta carotene, protein, and fiber. A pillow of ever-so-slightly sweet pumpkin porridge punctuates a bed of steel cut oats with quiet force, each bite a fortifying indulgence. Using chunks of pumpkin gives texture (a great choice in autumn), while canned pumpkin lends each spoonful ethereal silkiness all year round. Unless you pulverize your peanuts to a fine powder (which you are more than welcome to do), the crunch of peanut morsels make eating this breakfast a little bit like an Easter egg hunt.

Just. Need. One. More. Peanut.

Zambian Breakfast: Pumpkin and Peanut Oatmeal Recipe

Good to the last morsel, so to speak.

While Ava was captivated by Chitapo’s story, I wasn’t sure what she would think of the crunchy bits. Turns out she loved them, adding even more peanuts, stirring her porridge vigorously and gobbling up an entire bowl.

Zambian Breakfast: Pumpkin and Peanut Oatmeal Recipe

Zambian Breakfast: Pumpkin and Peanut Oatmeal Recipe


From what we can tell, this Zambian breakfast succeeds mighty well at deterring Chitapo.
No pots missing from the pantry. Not yesterday. Not today.

So where’s your next meal taking you?

Zambian Breakfast: Pumpkin and Peanut Oatmeal Recipe

Further Reading:

Waterspirits and Mermaids: The Copperbelt Case” by Brian Siegel
Sacred Waters” a book on African water creatures
Zambian Water Spirits
Books by Henry John Drewal
Mermaids around the world
Recipe book on Zambian Traditional Foods

Note: Chitapo (also Kitapo) is one of many local water spirits in Zambia and the Congo. Old stories about Chitapo are quite disturbing: parents delivered ill-omened babies to her (those children whose upper incisors broke through before the lowers).  In the 20th century, Chitapo became more of a mermaid figure thanks to the widespread Mami Wata legends. These stories spread to central and southern Africa from west Africa. While the legends are distinct, Brian Siegel (see Further Reading) thinks this is where Chitapo got her mermaid features, including the fish or serpent tale and human upper body.

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This Zambian Pumpkin n' Peanut Oats is a mother's (and a nutritionist's) dream - high in beta carotene, protein, and fiber. A pillow of ever-so-slightly sweet pumpkin porridge punctuates a bed of steel cut oats with quiet force, each bite a fortifying indulgence. Using chunks of pumpkin gives texture (a great choice in autumn), while canned pumpkin lends each spoonful ethereal silkiness all year round. PLUS it keeps mermaids away.Zambian Breakfast: Pumpkin n' Peanut Oats
Servings Prep Time
4-6people 5minutes
Cook Time
Servings Prep Time
4-6people 5minutes
Cook Time
For the Chipwatanga
Serve on hot breakfast cereal
  • oatmeal(preferably steel cut oats)
  1. Add all ingredients to a pot and cook over medium heat. It will sputter because it is a rather dry mixture. You can add more milk if you'd like, but I like having some body to the mixture. Stir regularly to keep the bottom from scorching.
  2. Serve over freshly prepared steel cut oatmeal. Garnish with more peanuts, if desired.

Recipe Copyright Sasha Martin, Global Table Adventure. For personal or educational use only.

Accidental lessons in parenting from Japanese Culinary Masters

Accidental lessons in parenting from Japanese culinary masters

Accidental lessons in parenting from Japanese Culinary Masters

My favorite time to obsess about my parenting choices is when I’m washing dishes, a mixture of warm soapy water and tomato sauce soaking my belly. Am I raising my six-year old right? Should she be doing more than yoga and dance? Or is she already too busy? Does she have time to let her mind wander? Should she be helping me with the dishes? Or would she be better off making mud pies?

Then I began reading Rice, Noodle, Fish, by Matt Goulding. The subtitle to this book is not Parenting for Chefs… Nor did Anthony Bourdain Books / HarperCollins, the publisher, intend this book to have an interdisciplinary application.

But the best books do.

Accidental lessons in parenting from Japanese Culinary Masters

This is not some gentle text.

Pursuant to the actual subtitle, Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture, this is not some gentle text, allowing the reader to sit comfortably in whatever generalist assumptions we might have about Japanese cooking. This is a 1,000-x magnification, showing crumb-level texture of the food scene in several major Japanese cities. From Tokyo to Noto, we sweep quickly past what we already know – ramen, udon and tempura – to get to know the people and their craft. The imagery is vivid and the language, at times, is colorful. There are lessons in the elaborate art of knife making, and details about why Japanese chefs believe “water is the most important ingredient in Japanese cooking.”

(Don’t be too quick to dismiss this concept – local water has it’s own flavor and is one reason why bagels, pizza, sour dough, and sushi rice tastes different from city to city. It’s also the reason why iced tea made with city water tastes no better than a slightly sweet mud puddle)

The main idea?


Devotion is the core of Japanese cooking.

In Rice, Noodle, Fish, food is the mechanism to get at the process of Japanese cooking and, with this, the book reveals a distinct way of being oriented around the idea of DEVOTION.  Even the author’s dedication points to this:

To the shokunin of Japan, pursuers of perfection, for showing us the true meaning of devotion.

What is a Shokunin?

The concept of shokunin, an artisan deeply and singularly dedicated to his or her craft, is at the core of Japanese culture.  […]

Hiding in every corner of this city and country: the eighty-year-old tempura man who has spent the past six decades discovering the subtle differences yielded by temperature and motion. The twelfth generation unagi sage who uses metal skewers like an acupuncturist uses needles, teasing the muscles of wild eel into new territories. The young man who has grown old at his father’s side, measuring his age in kitchen lessons. Any moment now, it will be his turn to be the master, and when he does, he’ll know exactly what to do. […]

Tokyo is the city of ten thousand shokunin. If you come to Japan to eat, you come for them.

– Rice, Noodle, Fish: Deep Travels through Japans Food Culture by Matt Goulding.

Accidental lessons in parenting from Japanese Culinary Masters

Accidental Lessons in Parenting (from Japanese culinary masters)

Between mouthwatering reading sessions and fighting the urge to hop on the next flight to Japan, I found myself thinking about the concept of shokunin – DEVOTION – in relationship to how I parent my daughter. Here are a few rules from Japanese culinary masters that also apply to parenting:

1. Parenting with Kimochi, or FEELING

Accidental lessons in parenting from Japanese Culinary Masters

The best sushi comes down to feeling. With only two primary ingredients, rice and fish, rice is the harder of the two to master and, therefore, the true star. According to master sushi maker Sawada, sushi rice should be skin temperature, served 60 minutes after cooking, and made with the best rice from the exact right location (a site that recently changed because of global warming). He says there is no fire – it is made with the hands, and enjoyed with ours, sushi is all about feeling.

As with sushi making, there are two primary ingredients in parenting: You need the parent and you need the child. Like turning rice into sushi rice, a lot of parenting decisions are based on FEEL. A child throwing a fit will warrant a different reaction based on the why, the where, and the how. Reacting appropriately gets easier the longer we parent. Having a standard – as Sawada does – helps give parents a baseline for their reactions.

2. Lessons are not learned in isolation

Accidental lessons in parenting from Japanese Culinary Masters

Just like the shokunin, it is not enough to tell our children what’s what. We need to stand side by side with our youth, demonstrating by example, guided by a set of principles based on quality and consistency.

Many of us want to tell our children to do something and have them march off and do it. Clean your room! Put away your back pack! Brush your teeth! But the shokunin became masters through repetition at the side of a mentor, or master.  It is sometimes more effective to have a young child brush their teeth at the parent’s side while the parent brushes their own teeth than griping at them from another room. Equally, a young child benefits when we clean their room together – so that, by the time they are old enough to do it themselves, they have positive associations with the experience.

In every instance, children benefit when we model the behavior we want them to cultivate. Many times they absorb the lesson without realizing one has been taught – as when we model loving language towards friends and strangers; as when we let them see us struggle with tough decisions. Side by side, we give our children a framework for how to cope with the many circumstances life throws their way.

Side by side, they get the feel.

3. Learning doesn’t stop at 18

Accidental lessons in parenting from Japanese Culinary Masters

Let’s return to the image of the fledgling Japanese chef: “The young man who has grown old at his father’s side, measuring his age in kitchen lessons. Any moment now, it will be his turn to be the master, and when he does, he’ll know exactly what to do.”

Do you see how the chef is already old, and yet he is still not a master? The same is true in the photo above, which mentions that decades of study does not guarantee a master.

I’ve noticed a quickening among the youth around me. I see that they are so eager to get in the workforce and to be valued, both by the dollar and their title. But with this rush comes impatience – as though there is no time for mastery, only success. The parent’s job is to continue teaching, even after their child turns 18. And some of those lessons, I assure, will have been taught many times before. Repetition gets the child to mastery.

4. Don’t try and give your child every opportunity

Accidental lessons in parenting from Japanese Culinary Masters

One of the most important aspects of being a shokunin is the ability to specialize in one thing. The shokunin is an artisan “deeply and singularly dedicated to his or her craft.” You make ramen. Or you make sushi. You forge knives. Or you work buckwheat into soba noodles. The master knows they can never be best at everything so he or she CHOOSES.

So many of our children are driven around from activity to activity, like so many worker bees, moving too quickly to settle into any one activity. But even bees are focused on one thing: making honey. In our fear that our children don’t have every opportunity they become generalists. This is not, in and of itself, a terrible thing. Not everyone in Japan is a master, nor should every person be a master.

But what happens when an entire culture – a.k.a. ALL THE PEOPLE – rely too much on speed and productivity (MORE, MORE, MORE!) and not enough on taking time to develop a deep understanding of their craft?

Automation. Disintegration. That’s what.

I say it’s time to return to artisan ways. To learning something really well, from someone who knows it really well.

And, hey! What if we let our children’s natural abilities guide what activities they choose? Any given season of a young child’s life, let them focus on one, maybe two activities. Fall could be ballet. Spring could be softball and theater. When we limit our children’s options, we give them time to learn at a deeper level.

We also make time for mud pies and impromptu puddle stomping.

5. That means you, too

Let’s return to our sushi master from #1. His desire to offer the best possible sushi leads him to serve only 12 people each day, at a bar that seats six. Get this: he used to seat 8 people, but felt that was too much. He gets up at 6 am and goes home at midnight. All to make sushi.

Sound crazy?

Or does that sort of devotion seem somehow magical?

Here’s something to consider:

Where are you, the parent, spending your hours?
Who are you serving with your time?

Is your job draining your energy? Are you involved with too many groups? Or do you need to get out more, so that you can be refreshed when it comes to the family? Emotionally, you might be trying to “serve 8” and finding that something has to give. Parents are as likely to overexert themselves as their children… so do take the time to remove a couple extraneous “seats” in your life if you find you are overdoing it.

What it all means

Look, I know a book on Japanese food is probably not where you want to get your parenting advice. And I know Matt Goulding had no intention for Rice, Noodle, Fish to be used in this way. Writing this post, I thought, more than once, that I might be crazy.  But I honestly think the premise applies.

Here’s the bottom line:

We can all use a little more devotion in our lives – not to become more devoted to our children, because goodness knows we wouldn’t be shuttling them from activity to activity if we weren’t – but to actually model devotion as a choice to DO LESS with MORE PASSION.

I, for one, am willing to try.

Thanks, Matt.

And thanks to the shokunin for showing the way.

Rice, Noodle, Fish by Matt Goulding

Photos from Rice, Noodle, Fish.

Maori Fish Salad | New Zealand

Māori Fish Salad & the legend of New Zealand | Ika Mata

Maori Fish Salad Recipe & the legend of New Zealand's North Island

One of the largest fish ever caught is the stuff of Māori legend. Today, this fish is known as New Zealand’s north island.

The fisherman able to haul in such a prize?  Māui, the mythological hero.

As the story goes, Māui paddled his canoe far out into the ocean in search of a big catch. He used his ancestor’s jawbone as a fish hook, coating it with blood from his nose.

Fishing hook, bone, Maori culture, 1800-1900. In the exhibition "Maori, their treasures have got a soul", in the Musée des Arts Premiers in Paris, from the end of 2011 to the begining of 2012.

Fishing hook, bone, Maori culture, c.1800-1900.

Down, down, down went the hook, into the depths of the deep blue waters.  After some time, the slack line tightened. It took all Māui’s strength to reel in the heavy fish. Stumbling under the effort,  Māui had to brace himself on the edge of his canoe as he pulled the line up, up, up.

When the fish finally rose out of the water, Māui gasped. It was the largest sea creature he’d ever seen, big enough to blot out the horizon, with shiny green scales.

"New Zealand - Maori rowing - 8452" by © Jorge Royan / Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Maori rowing ceremony in New Zealand” by Jorge Royan

Māui decided to leave this precious prize with his brothers while he set out in search of a priest to bless the catch. No sooner was he out of sight than his brothers began to grab at the fish, each scrambling to get the best parts. Large though it was, the creature was no match for Māui’s brothers. Writhing in agony, the great fish succumbed, tearing at the flesh.

Legend says that the great fish is New Zealand’s north island and that the brothers’ greed created the island’s mountains, valleys, and cliffs (earning the north island the name “Te Ika-a-Māui“, a.k.a. The Fish of Māui). Māui’s canoe became the south island (earning it the name “Te Waka-a-Māui” – the canoe of Māui).

"Satellite image of New Zealand in December 2002" by Unknown - Taken from NASA's Visible Earth: [1]. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

And the spot on the canoe where the young man braced himself?

That’s Banks Peninsula.

 This satellite image shows Banks Peninsula, including Lyttelton Harbour and Akaroa Harbour, and the city of Christchurch, in Canterbury, New Zealand.

My retelling is based on the popular Māori Mythology of Māui.

Our efforts don’t always reap what we might expect.

Can we back up for a minute? Māui went fishing and ended up creating an island. An island!

Few of us dare to think we can effect much change in this world. We eke out our daily existence, eyes firmly focused on the next task: go to work, go to the grocery store, make dinner, clean up, repeat.

But think about Māui: all he did was go fishing. Essentially, he went to the original “grocery store.”  This is quite a normal – dare I say mundane – activity, which makes it all the more important that he reeled in an entire island – a place where people can live and eat and love.

By Phillip Capper from Wellington, New Zealand - On the Quartz Hill track, Wellington, New Zealand, 7 September 2006, CC BY 2.0,

Quartz Hill, North Island, New Zealand, by Phillip Capper.

Tremendous surprise can wait on the other end of the mundane.

The key to this “big fish” story is trapped in the details: Māui used his ancestor’s jawbone and his own blood to catch a fish as big as an island – in other words, he used the strength of his ancestors, while putting himself into the effort with unflinching passion. This is what it takes, my friends.

That’s heavy duty.

A lesson for creatives

"MURCHISON (5374787569)" by Paul Nelhams from Shannon, Ireland - MURCHISONUploaded by russavia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Murchison, New Zealand” by Paul Nelhams

Māui’s story reminds me of what Red Smith said when asked about writing: “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” *

While it might seem glorious to write a book, the daily act is rather mundane. It goes like this: show up, stare off into space, and – if you’re lucky – tap, tap, tap at the keyboard until coherent sentences result. Turning this mundane activity into something glorious relies on putting ourselves fully into our work. We have to show up if expect some sort of mythical “big fish” to show up.

The start of something

Maori Fish Salad Recipe

Sometime last summer my daughter asked me to write a book “just for her.” Around that time the ink on my memoir was still wet; as much as I wanted to accommodate my daughter’s wish, I was tired of writing. As a distraction, I started to sketch again (something I hadn’t done much since college). On the first page of my giant, brand new, beautiful sketch book I made… a terrible sketch of a teacup. I moved on but every time I looked at that first page of my sketchbook I’d cringe a little.

One day I was rather bored and decided to improve on the drawing. I added some weird details which, in turn, sparked an idea for a story. After spending more than a year completely uninspired to write another book, this unexpected inspiration was huge.

Elizabeth Gilbert talks about the writer’s block she experienced after Eat, Pray, Love, stating that she found her way out by “following her curiosity.” Instead of a memoir, she ended up with the massive novel Signature of All Things. In other words, out of the mundane activity of following our curiosity, we can, sometimes, eventually, possibly, pull out a BIG FISH.

Now that I find myself once again curious, once again willing to “show up” and write, I find myself struggling with joy as I reel in my unwieldy story. Every day I sit and stare at the screen. On good days I come up with an exciting plot twist. My daughter has taken to sketching the characters for me, so I can see what they should wear.

Maori Fish Salad Recipe

It’s still early in the game, but the book seems to want to be a fantasy involving good versus evil, otherworldy adventure, with – of course – a helping of delicious food writing.

I don’t exactly know where this story is taking me. I don’t know if it’s just a fun idea or if it will result in a BIG FISH. All I know is, right now, I’m throwing everything into the process and enjoying the challenge.

For your BIG FISH: a meal worthy of Māui

Maori Fish Salad | New Zealand

We all have our challenges. I’m sure there’s something you have been trying to “reel in.” As you work on your BIG FISH, consider trying Ika Mata. Ika Mata is a Māori dish of fresh fish “cooked” with lemon juice and marinated in seasoned coconut milk.

There’s a garden’s-worth of fresh vegetables in the dish, including spicy radish, chopped tomato, sweet slivers of carrot, and bright green onion bits.

Maori Fish Salad Recipe & the legend of New Zealand's North Island

You can prep them while you wait for the tuna to “cook” in the lemon juice.

Maori Fish Salad Recipe & the legend of New Zealand's North Island

Maori Fish Salad Recipe & the legend of New Zealand's North Island

The dish is most popular on Cook Island (a territory of New Zealand). This is something like ceviche, but with a tropical spin. The tuna’s high protein and rich coconut milk will nourish you while you work (or play).

See how pretty?

Maori Fish Salad Recipe & the legend of New Zealand's North Island

A little coconut milk binds all the ingredients together.

It’s great on a salad…

Maori Fish Salad Recipe & the legend of New Zealand's North Island

Or as an appetizer…

Maori Fish Salad and the legend of New Zealand

(Pro Tip: if you don’t have any crostini, a bagel will do the trick in a pinch!)

Maori Fish Salad Recipe & the legend of New Zealand's North Island

Also: My daughter is a decided vegetarian – she enjoyed her dish by subbing tofu for the tuna. (Hey if tofu ceviche good enough for Ellen Degeneres, it’s good enough for us).

Maori Fish Salad Recipe & the legend of New Zealand's North Island

The cat seems to approve.

Maori Fish Salad and the legend of New Zealand


More Maori Recipes
Maori Cooking Show, including a demonstration of Ika Mata
Māori mythology (of Māui)

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The dish is most popular on Cook Island (a territory of New Zealand). This is something like ceviche, but with a tropical spin. The tuna's high protein and rich coconut milk will nourish you while you work (or play). While I've used tuna here, you can also use grouper or snapper. You can easily make 75 small appetizers on crostini or serve 6 people a good, lunch-sized portion.Ika Mata Fish Salad and the legend of New Zealand
Servings Prep Time
6people 20minutes
Passive Time
Servings Prep Time
6people 20minutes
Passive Time
  1. In a medium nonreactive bowl (glass, ceramic, or melamine): stir together the diced tuna and lemon juice. Set in the fridge for a few hours, stirring once or twice.
  2. When the tuna is "cooked" on the outside and pink on the inside, drain off the lemon juice and add the remaining chopped vegetables and coconut milk. Season well with salt.
Serving Options:
  1. For a meal: Arrange a large scoop onto a bed of lettuce and garnish with parsley. Serve with crackers or crusty bread.
  2. For an appetizer: Heap a small spoonful onto crostini or small appetizer spoons. Garnish with parsley.

Recipe Copyright Sasha Martin, Global Table Adventure. For personal or educational use only.


Peace is grace for what you *can’t* see

Peace is grace for what you *can't* see // The Widow of an Indian Chief Watching the Arms of Her Deceased Husband. Joseph Wright of Derby (1785)

Last month I received some bad news – enough to shake me up pretty good. We’ve all been there: maybe someone you love gets in a car accident, maybe you blow an important work deal, break a leg, or lose your job. It’s bad news, but ultimately something you can get through, work out, and – hopefully – survive with grace. Grace for yourself and grace for those around you.

This is different than experiencing death or other profound loss.  This drudgery of grief grinds at the spirit but doesn’t destroy us. As a coping mechanism many bury their emotions and just… move on. They protect themselves by “holding it together.”

Peace is grace for what you *can't* see // There were no crops this year

But grief finds the cracks and shows up in unexpected ways.

After an hour of cleaning the kitchen (my first line of defense against stress and grief), I drove to the craft store, thinking I’d get some supplies to do a little art therapy. I stared at the black ink pens for so long that it would be reasonable to think I was either a shoplifter or had fallen asleep. Suddenly, I realized what was wrong: I needed something more than art therapy. I needed a friend. My husband, a.k.a. my bff, was in bed, sick, and I knew he needed rest.

I pulled out my phone, hoping to muster the courage to tell one of my friends that I wanted needed to hang out. I scrolled through dozens of names, making excuses for why they wouldn’t be able to meet me. She’s probably putting the kids to bed. I don’t want him to get the wrong idea. I just hung out with her for the first time last week. They’re out of town. She’s trying to start a business; how could I pull her away from her limited family time? I bet she’s in the middle of dinner.

And on went the excuses, the names blurring together into one big “NO.”

Peace is grace for what you *can't* see // The First Grief (Le Premier Chagrin) by Daniel Ridgway Knight, 1892, Brigham Young University Museum of Art

Why is reaching out so hard?

I’ve spent my whole life battling the feeling that I am an inconvenience to others. I decide for my friends that they don’t have time for me, leaving Keith as my primary sounding board. I’m sure a therapist would assert that this is a simple equation, involving the number of foster homes I was in as a child, multiplied by the number of times I felt unconditionally loved in those homes. But I don’t think it’s that simple.

This is not a problem limited to people who’ve been in foster homes. I’ve spoken to many people who confide that they, too, find themselves scrolling through their phones or Facebook, unsure of who to reach out to.

It’s simple, really:

We have a deluge of contacts, but a drought of meaningful connections.

Peace is grace for what you *can't* see // FORSAKEN. FROM THE PICTURE BY JULIUS BENCZUR (19th century)

As I stood there in the marker aisle of that big box craft store, staring at my phone, trying to muster the courage to text a friend, I completely tuned out the world around me. It was then that two men walked up. I didn’t see them. I didn’t hear them. I had no idea any one was near me. I just kept scrolling through my address book.

“Don’t move.” The words were spat out with equal parts anger and sarcasm.

I whipped my head up. One man was pushing another in a wheelchair. My cellphone and I were blocking their path. Mortified, I apologized as earnestly as I could. Neither man looked at me, though one did roll his eyes. They went on their way, deciding, I’m sure, that I was some cellphone obsessed flake with no consideration.

I felt like a jerk. As shame took over, the grief that landed me in the pen aisle in the first place – the grief that I’d worked so hard to “manage” – found the cracks and spilled out. I started crying right there, in front of the black ink pens. It was the last straw on a weird day.

Let me be clear: I am certain those men deal with oblivious people all the time. They have their own inner story, their own daily grind of grief.

So what are we to do with ourselves? With our neighbors?

How can we help when we don’t know the first thing that’s happening with the strangers who cross our paths?

Peace is grace for what you *can't* see // "Sketch of Four Faces - Katsushika Hokusai" by Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾北斎) - Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 38.154_IMLS_PS3.jpg. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

Start with grace. You never know what someone is going through.

The person running the red light, the person being rude to a cashier, the person laughing too loudly, the too quiet person, the distant person, the angry person… You just never know. This world is a knotted collection of feelings and if we’re ever going to figure out peace, we’re going to need to figure out compassion for ourselves and others.

And it starts by understanding that we all have something hidden inside, something that motivates us to behave as we do.

Situations escalate when we react impulsively, without stopping to consider the “hidden lives” before us – those stories we can’t comprehend unless someone specifically shares them with us. Certainly, this doesn’t mean people get a free pass to hurt others, but whenever we stumble upon conflict, it helps if we start with an attitude of love and kindness.

A friend of mine once said: be kinder than necessary, you really have no idea what someone is going through.

If ever there’s a secret to peace, that, my friends, is it:

Peace is grace for what we can’t see.

May we all experience such grace.
And may we offer it, without condition and with pure, childlike love.

Peace is grace for what you *can't* see // Jack Rabbit (Shi-Ko-Da) by Grace Carpe

Artwork in order of appearance:

“Widow of an Indian Chief Watching the Arms of Her Deceased Husband.” Joseph Wright of Derby (1785)

“”There Were No Crops This Year” by Charles White (1940)

“The First Grief” (Le Premier Chagrin) by Daniel Ridgway Knight (1892).

“Forsaken.” From the picture by Julius Benczur (19th century)

“Sketch of Four Faces” by Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾北斎) (~1760-1849)

“Jack Rabbit (Shi-Ko-Da)” by Grace Carpenter Hudson (1919)


Peruvian Quinoa Salad | A gift from the stars

Peruvian Quinoa Salad Recipe

Step out under the sky tonight and scan the heavens. Seek out a star, winking in the darkness, livelier than all the rest. This, my friends, is the proud, playful star-sister who brought quinoa to South America.

Legend has it that, long before hip, suburban health food stores stocked this comma-shaped seed, the Aymara people* of the Andes were given the gift of quinoa.

"Peru - Puno - Titicaca Lake - Aimara (Aymara) Village on the water - 19" by World Wide Gifts - Flickr: Peru - Puno - Titicaca Lake - Aimara (Aymara) Village on the water - 19. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“An Aymara Village on Lake Titicaca, Peru.” Photo by World Wide Gifts.

"Atacameños y Aymaras" by A. Bresson - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

“Atacameños y Aymaras” (1874)

It was the Aymara’s first harvest, near Lake Titicaca. While toiling in the fields, the farmers noticed that someone had dug up and stolen some of their potatoes.  Determined to catch the thief red handed, one young man decided to stay up all night and keep watch over the fields.

The young man hid behind some bushes and waited. The hours slipped slowly by, leaves rustling in the moonlight, tempting him with sleep. He eyes began to droop, his back began to hunch. Suddenly, the sound of laughter rang out. He bolted up and peered through the brush.  On the far side of the field he saw several young maidens – the star-sisters – come from the heavens to frolic on earth.

In those days humans could speak to the stars. But the young man was more concerned with his crops than conversation. Determined to keep the stars-sisters from stealing more potatoes, he rang a bell in warning.

Clang, clang, clang.

The sound shook the still night air, startling the women. They scattered in all directions, one after another, disappearing up, into their heavenly home. But the youngest sister – the brightest, sweetest star of all – tripped and fell. Fearing that the young man would capture her, she turned herself into a bird and flew into the heavens as fast as she could, leaving behind a trail of light.

Milky Way over the Andes (Chile). Photo by El Gran Cazador (

Milky Way over the Andes (Chile). Photo by El Gran Cazador.

Entranced by this vision, the young man forgot about his potatoes; his only thought was to set eyes on the remarkable star-sister again. He immediately set off on a mountain trail in search of a condor to help him. This great bird is the largest flying bird in South America. The young man hoped it would carry him up, beyond the sky, through the Karman line at the edge of earth’s atmosphere, into space.

And this is exactly what the bird did.

By The NASA Expedition 23 crew - NASA Earth Observatory, Public Domain,

View of the Andes highlands (this section in Chile). By NASA Expedition 23 / NASA Earth Observatory.

The condor flew the young man along the trail of light to the young star’s heavenly home, where the star and young man became fast friends. It wasn’t long before their friendship became bound by great love and the two were married. For many moons the young couple lived together in the sky. Day after day the star fed him her most prized food – quinoa – as a symbol of her love. The young man’s body was strengthened by the seed’s abundant protein, vitamins and amino acids.

All was well. But as much as he loved his wife and new home, the young man yearned to see his family again. So, his bride sent him home for a visit on the back of the condor, with a gift of quinoa for his people.

On his journey home, the young man scattered the seed in Andean highlands, where the superfood still grows today. Quinoa remains the pride of the Andes and much of South American cooking.

A true gift from the stars.

I based the above adaptation on “El Origen de la Quinoa” (narrated by Gregorio Ordona). A copy of the original video is included below. This is one of many Peruvian legends about quinoa.

"Nevadohuandoy" by Clarquitecto - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Huandoy Mountain, Peru.” by Clarquitecto.

Original Legend of Quinoa

The star of the dinner table

Recipe for South American Quinoa Salad

After years of watching me take pictures of food, my 6 1/2 year old daughter, Ava, is now showing an interest in the behind-the-scenes process. So I shared the Legend of Quinoa her, then invited her to help me style a simple Peruvian quinoa salad. She had so much fun. She drew stars on yellow paper, cut them out, and scattered them around the food. After the food was set up to her liking, I taught her to frame a photo (on the tripod), manually get focus, and – finally – to take the photo.

Could I have taken the photos quicker by myself?


If she hadn’t been there, would the lens have gotten a smudge on it, creating a soft blur to many of the photos, rendering them unusable?


But if I hadn’t invited Ava to join me the photos – and the experience – would have lost their magic. This experience was as much for her as for me… we laughed as she directed me to take bites, move in or out of frame.


This was creativity in action. A bonding experience for mother and daughter.

And guess what?

In between photos Ava took enormous bites of the Quinoa Salad.

She LOVED it.

Recipe for Peruvian Quinoa Salad

Even though she currently dislikes tomatoes.

Recipe for Peruvian Quinoa Salad

Even though she wants nothing to do with an olive.

Recipe for Peruvian Quinoa Salad

She. Loved. It.

Peruvian Quinoa Salad Recipe

It’s simple, really: Involving children in the cooking, in the art of food – it gets them excited about trying new things.  When you let your children have a starring role in the process, mealtime becomes better for all.


Every day Peruvian Quinoa Salad

What if you could eat a salad as good as gold, even on a weeknight? Quinoa (pronounced “Keen-wah”) is known as the gold of the Andean highlands. The seed earned this nickname because of the dense nutrition it provides:

According to the FAO, quinoa it is the only plant crop to contain all the essential amino acids, vitamins, mineral nutrients, and, furthermore, it doesn’t contain gluten. (World Bank)

If you can cook rice, you can cook Quinoa… and putting it in your salad is the next logical step.

Recipe for Peruvian Quinoa Salad

This Peruvian Quinoa Salad comes together in less than thirty minutes and eats a bit like loaded tabbouleh (according to my husband, formerly known as Mr. Picky, who never used to eat salad, but gobbled this one down readily).

Quinoa has a slightly earthier flavor than bulgur (and unrinsed quinoa can even be mildly bitter). It also requires a brief stint on the stove – about fifteen minutes of cooking. But, thanks to the tart squeeze of lime, mild queso fresco, and the salsaesque-flair of tomato and cilantro …  well, there’s no doubt this Quinoa Salad is South American.

I’m talkin’ BIG flavor.

Recipe for Peruvian Quinoa Salad

Salt is the key to making the lime juice “dressing” pop – think of how much a salted rim makes a margarita sing… that’s what you’re looking for with this salad.

Take it on a picnic, pack it in a lunch, or just eat it straight from the fridge with a spoon.

As for the fancier among you, perhaps you’d like to serve it in, or with, an avocado half.


Recipe for Peruvian Quinoa Salad

Sources & Materials

Quinoa: a “Superfood” enriching the lives of Andean farmers (World Bank)
Recipe inspiration (among others): Peruvian Quinoa Salad (Sosopie)
The Legend of Quinoa (video)

*The Aymara people lived predominantly in the Andes throughout Peru, Chile, and Bolivia. For this reason I’ve used photos of the Andes in multiple countries. All are clearly marked.

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If Quinoa is a gift from the stars, then this salad is your ticket to celestial joy! You can eat it as soon as it's mixed up, but 30 minutes gives the salad time to mingle and get happy. Peruvian Quinoa Salad
Servings Prep Time
4-6people 15minutes
Cook Time
Servings Prep Time
4-6people 15minutes
Cook Time
For the quinoa
  • 1cup quinoa
  • 2cups water
  • 1/2tsp salt
For the salad
Garnish & Accompaniments
For the Quinoa
  1. Toast the quinoa in a small, dry pot for five minutes over medium heat, until fragrant. Add water and a half teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce to a simmer. Cook about 15 minutes, or until the quinoa becomes translucent, uncoils and resembles tiny edible commas. Set aside to cool to room temperature.
For the salad
  1. Meanwhile, chop your way through a happy pile of vegetables.
  2. Toss everything in a medium bowl. Season liberally with salt - the lime juice will seem overly sour until the salad is seasoned properly. I used about a teaspoon - just add a little at a time until you like it. Garnish with olives and cilantro, as desired. Serve in (or with) avocado halves.

Recipe Copyright Sasha Martin, Global Table Adventure. For personal or educational use only.

Ava's first food

What my baby thinks about eating the world

Ava's first food

We began cooking the world with Afghanistan, when my daughter was 7-months old. We completed the final country, Zimbabwe, when she was 4 1/2. Now she’s 6 1/2 and we continue to try new foods weekly. Below is a unique look into my daughter’s perspective about our Global Table Adventure – as I like to imagine it. This first installment is her perspective in the first six months of the adventure, from 7-13 months old. 

Who says you need teeth to eat the world?

I’m only seven months old but mom tells me we’re going to eat a meal from every country in the world. That’s more than 195 countries! It’s hard to imagine – especially since I just ate my first foods last month and I don’t have any teeth.

Mama talked to my pediatrician (as you should before giving your baby any new foods) and learned all about Baby Led Weaning.  Turns out I’m not destined to months of jarred baby food! Instead, I can gum my way through softer bits of age-appropriate whole foods. And since babies all over the world eat a variety of flavors – no reason for my food to be bland. Since Mama is starting with Afghanistan, my first meal will be Kabeli Palau – Mama says I can gum some soft bits of chicken!

What my baby thinks of cooking the world

If you can’t stand the heat, your mom can help.

If grownups want to eat spicy food they can have ready a glass of milk, some yogurt, or a slice of bread – all of which help block the burning effects of capsicum. But what about for a baby? Well, I’m 11-months old and Mama just found out that, in Bhutan, moms give their babies spicy food without much worry. This is a country that cooks and serves chili peppers as a dish, just like my mom might serve up steamed carrots! Imagine eating an entire bowl of hot chili peppers!

The key, she learned, was that moms in Bhutan share with their babies… perhaps not a bowl of chili peppers, but any number of mild ingredients cooked in a spicy sauce. They’ll wipe off the sauce in their own mouth for baby. Inevitably, some of the sauce’s heat and flavor sticks around – but is generally much milder. Over time, they wipe off less and less sauce. Eventually, babies work up to eating the bowls of cooked spicy chilies. Mama took it easy with me this time but says she’s going to use this method as I grow bigger!

Parents don’t know it all!

So Mama and Papa were all gung-ho about cooking the world, but last night they made a rice dish with fermented locust beans, spinach, and anchovies called Babenda from Burkina Faso. I’m just 13-months old but I ate loads more than they did. It was fishy, tasted like blue cheese and was loaded with greens – I’d totally eat it again! I guess older people become more set in their ways when it comes to trying bold flavors??? My pediatrician says babies are completely open-minded – we’ll try anything! I guess I’m a good influence on them!

For more videos of little Ava trying food from around the world, go to our YouTube Channel (keep in mind Ava gets younger the further back in the feed you go)! Enjoy – and happy cooking!

Life from Scratch book signing with Booksmart Tulsa

What really matters to authors

Life from scratch book signings

No one prepares authors for what can happen after they publish their first book. Of course they tell us lots of things in preparation for “magical” book launch day: Come up with a marketing plan (huh?); Pick out a favorite pen for signings (Oooo, how I adore my blue-ink fountain pen); Look presentable (learned how to use a curling iron at 35 years old – huzzah!). The advice is mostly the same whether you’re self published or going through a traditional publisher.

None of this prepared me for what actually mattered to me as a first-time author.

Life from Scratch book signings with Booksmart Tulsa

You see, I stopped checking sales early on after Life from Scratch came out. I couldn’t bring myself to care about statistics, weekly trends and blah, blah, blah.  Instead, I found myself running to my email and opening messages like this:

I am in the middle of your book right now and I’m loving it!!! When I’m not reading it, I’m thinking about your story and your words all the time. We just started fostering little ones last August and it has changed my view on fostering. The experiences you went through (the other side of the coin) has made me want to love these kids so much more. Bringing kids into the home, I, like Patricia, wanted to keep them at arms length. I didn’t want to bring them into my love circle because I knew they would eventually leave and I would get hurt. Your book is so inspiring and has truly changed me as a momma (2biokids 3fosterbabies). I also love being in the kitchen so the book has inspired me to get in the kitchen as well. God has given you such an amazing testimony with your life story. I’m blessed to have been a recipient of the book. – Elizabeth B.

and this:

While I have not encountered nearly the heartache you have experienced, I do know adversity. And I know that thru it, you can either whither away in self-pity, or you can look at life thru a different set of lenses than those who have not shared those difficult times. It has become a part of who I am, each and every day. Whether it be at work, in my neighborhood, or in my travels, I let my heart tell me to embrace each and every moment as a gift. You clearly demonstrate that same passion, and perhaps that is what touched me so deeply when listening to your story. Continue to cherish the simple things that make life so very special. Thank you for your wonderful story, I will tuck it away in my treasure of memories of what makes life important. – Jody Z.

and this:

Well. I have loved loved your book on all the levels it should be enjoyed – humour, honesty, intrigue, creativity, self reflection, cooking, love, struggle, acceptance AND may I say only one other book has ever sat me bolt upright with a punch to the heart – a wholly unexpected sudden shocking complete understanding of the grief & mess in my heart PLUS a way through . Thank you Sasha for writing this book. I hope you don’t mind knowing I have a page of your book taped to my bedroom wall. P. 114 [hardcover] – Catherine S.

These letters I’ve received? This is the magic that fuels authors. This is what makes us content with our craft. There will never be a sales statistic that moves me like the words above.

You are why I do what I do. Your big hearts astonish me. Helping you, helping others – it’s all a glorious gift… and if my story can be the catalyst to such conversation and change, I am honored, humbled, and grateful.

Life from Scratch comes out in paperback this week…

… which means I’m headed out for another round of signings to celebrate! I can’t wait to come out and meet you… give you hugs, hear your stories.



Wednesday  March 2 |  11:30am – 2:00pm | CHICAGO

Lake Forest Book Store @ The Grille on Laurel, 181 E. Laurel Ave. Lake Forest, IL 60045

Ticketed Luncheon, talk & signing. Tickets are $45.00 for luncheon with book included. Register at Lake Forest Book Store at 847-234-4420

Tuesday March 8 |  7:00 pm | SAN FRANCISCO

Book Passage51 Tamal Vista Blvd. Corte Madera, CA 94925

Talk, Q&A, and signing.

Recipe for Vegetable Biryani

Vegetable Biryani for my “Rickshaw Girl”

Vegetable Biriyani Recipe

Cooking a pot of Biryani can be deer-in-the-headlights overwhelming – so much so, most people wouldn’t consider getting the spiced rice dish anywhere but a restaurant. But – ah! I recently learned a few tricks that make cooking this party dish less like facing an oncoming semi-truck, and more like conducting a well-orchestrated fireworks show.

A lesson in perseverance

"Dhaka banner" by Zac Hinton - Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Rickshaws in Dhaka” by Zac Hinton.

Real talk: The first time I made biryani I crashed, burned, and vowed to never make it again. Though you can also find the recipe in India and other nearby countries, I first got the idea of tackling biryani while reading Rickshaw Girl with my daughter. This empowering Bangladeshi chapter book features a young artist who wants to help her struggling family. Though the little girl can’t make money with her Alpana drawings, she hatches a plan to drive her sick father’s rickshaw to supplement the family’s income. Though men traditionally earn the money in her community, she perseveres, proving that girls contribute as much as boys.

"Rickshaw in Sonargaon" by Nafis Kamal - Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Rickshaw in Sonargaon” by Nafis Kamal.

When the girl’s family shares a platter of biryani on International Mother Language Day (February 21 – “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by people of the world”) I thought how fun – bringing biryani into our kitchen is the perfect way to bring Rickshaw Girl to life for my daughter… and extend the book discussion to the dinner table.

I went into the process with little preparation or experience (unless you count the dozens of rice dishes from around the world we tried – but many of those were quite simple). After the first failure, wherein my kitchen was inundated with dirty dishes, spills, and questionable scraps, I struggled with whether to try making biryani again.

Tasting the dish was all the courage I needed.

This recipe is full of bold spice, tender vegetables, and feather-light grains of basmati rice

Taking inspiration from Rickshaw Girl herself, I reminded myself that not everything that’s good is easy. Plus, my family loved the dish – even eating with their hands, in the traditional manner.

Enjoying a vegetalble Biriyani

After some practice and streamlining, I came up with a recipe I’m thrilled to add to our meal rotation. So, without further ado…

Here’s how to make Biryani without losing your mind:

1. Plan (& prep) ahead

Homemade Biriyani recipe

Do not – I repeat – do not attempt biryani if you haven’t prepped your food ahead of time. I watched dozens of people make biryani over the years and the only ones not breaking a sweat were the ones who had nice little bowls with all their ingredients laid out in  front of them. In cooking school we called this mise-en-place, or everything in its place. It can take a good thirty minutes to cut and organize each ingredient… but I promise you this is time well-spent.

2. Take your time

How to make vegetable biriyani (recipe)

Cooking isn’t fun if the process is rushed, especially if you’re trying a recipe for the first time. I consider biryani one of our “Weekend Projects” — I’d recommend setting aside an afternoon to make it when you have nowhere in particular to be.

Put on some tunes, tie on your favorite apron, sip a little wine and hunker down for an afternoon in the kitchen with no other distractions.

You’ll be glad to have the music and wine while you’re browning your vegetables and caramelizing your onion. That step alone cannot be rushed – if you do, the fact-of-the-matter is your dish will lack depth of flavor.

3. Make your rice nice

Homemade Vegetable Biriyani recipe

A good biryani is all about the rice. Long grain basmati rice is necessary; it should be washed and parboiled before steaming among the vegetables. These extra steps will make the grains light, fluffy, and distinct, instead of heavy, mushy, and clumped together. While it might seem like a lot of work, the results are well-worth it.

4. Add flavor in layers (but use one pot)

How to make Vegetable Biryani

Taking the time to prepare each layer of flavor gives great dimension to the finished biryani. First, in goes the spices and aromatics. Then, some yogurt for creaminess.

Vegetable Biryani recipe

Finally you’ll toss it with those veggies you browned.


Can you smell that amazing aroma through your screen!? Yum.

Each of these steps adds BIG flavor to the finished dish.

Also: I borrowed a trick from a famous biryani chain in Bangladesh, Fakruddin – After I make my vegetable curry, I add the rice in one thick layer on top of the vegetables to steam, only tossing it after cooking. This is a little less fussy and comes out just as good as if you’d alternated layers.

5. Finishing touches

Recipe for Vegetable Biryani

The best biryanis really are like well-orchestrated fireworks displays – but instead of exploding in the sky, they light up your taste buds. You’ll find sweet notes thanks to a handful of raisins and caramelized onion. There’s a hefty crunch of slivered almonds. And all those deeply browned vegetables are balanced out by a few freshly torn cilantro leaves. You could switch from almond to cashew, from raisins to prunes, and from cilantro to mint, but whatever you do, don’t skimp or your biryani display will be lackluster.

Most important of all? Have fun cooking and eating with the spirit of discovery!

Tools & Resources:

Rickshaw Girl by Mitali Perkins
International Mother Language Day: 1, 2
Le Creuset Dutch Oven
Biryani-making video from Fakruddin (starts around 9 min)

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Packed with flavor, vegetable biryani is well-worth the effort. Set aside an afternoon the first time you attempt the recipe and don't do anything before you cut up and measure out the ingredients. Trust me. It'll save you a minor breakdown if this is your first time making biryani. Note - if your pot's lid doesn't seal perfectly, as with a Le Creuset, you will lose too much moisture for this recipe to work properly. To remedy this press aluminum foil onto the pot before covering OR seal the lid onto the pot with a piece of dough made with flour and water (this latter is the traditional method).Vegetable Biryani
Servings Prep Time
6-8people 45minutes
Cook Time Passive Time
90minutes 30minutes
Servings Prep Time
6-8people 45minutes
Cook Time Passive Time
90minutes 30minutes
Basmati Rice
Masala, a.k.a. spice mixture
For assembly
  1. Peel, slice, and prep all ingredients. To make things easier, set them out in small dishes, ready to go.
Soak the rice:
  1. Wash the basmati rice under cool water until the liquid is no longer cloudy. Soak in a bowl of clean, cool water for 30 minutes (this can soak while you prepare the vegetable masala). This step helps keep the rice from getting sticky. While the rice is soaking, put on 6 cups of water in a pot along with the whole spices and salt. Cover and gently bring to a simmer (there's no rush here, but it speeds up getting the water to a boil later, and it helps the spices infuse the water).
  2. Keep prepping the rest of the recipe as written below - whenever the 30-minute timer goes off, follow these steps to parcook the rice: Crank the heat up on the simmering pot of water to a full boil. Drain the soaked rice and add to the pot. Gently boil for 5 minutes. The rice needs to have a little raw bite in the center or it will be mushy at the end! Strain the rice and spread in a very large platter to stop the cooking (I just use the serving platter).
Fry the garnish & brown vegetables:
  1. In a large heavy-bottomed pot with well fitting lid (you'll use that later), heat ghee and fry the sliced onion until deep brown over medium-high. Stir often to keep from burning. When done, remove with slotted spoon onto a plate lined with a paper towel and set aside. Season with salt.
  2. Fry the potatoes, cauliflower and carrot in the remaining ghee until browned on all sides (watch for splatters when adding them to the pot). Stir once to coat everything with the ghee, then only stir occasionally or you'll get in the way of browning. This can take a good 10-15 minutes. Season with salt, remove and set aside.
Fry the vegetable masala:
  1. To the same pot with the remaining ghee, fry the second onion (minced) along with the tomato over medium high until soft. Add the garlic, ginger, sliced green chili peppers, and the spices (red chili powder, ground coriander, ground cumin, and ground turmeric). Stir until well combined and fragrant. Cool slightly, then stir in the yogurt. Add the chopped vegetables and stir to coat in the masala. Season with salt as desired.
Layer the biryani:
  1. This is the last cooking step! Scatter the raisins on top of the vegetables, then spoon on the parcooked rice (Remove the whole spices from the rice if desired). Smooth the surface and drizzle with rose water. Drizzle on the melted ghee if you want a more indulgent biryani (I usually skip it). Cover and cook over low/medium-low for about 45 minutes or until the rice is cooked through. (To help prevent excessive browning of the ingredients on the bottom of the pot, you can put a comal between the pot and flame*).
To serve:
  1. Taste the rice to make sure it is cooked to your liking. Tip onto a large family-style platter, stirring gently to combine all ingredients as you go. Top with reserved fried onion, slivered almonds, and cilantro.
  2. Enjoy the fireworks of flavor!
Recipe Notes

*A comal is a flat piece of cookware typically used to make tortillas etc - placing it between the pot and the heat source keeps thinner pots from scorching the bottom of the food. A comal is *not* nonstick (you never want to heat up nonstick cookware without food in it - the fumes can be toxic). I don't typically use one because my pot is so heavy-bottomed and I don't mind some browned bits.


Recipe Copyright Sasha Martin, Global Table Adventure. For personal or educational use only.

Cherokee Grape Dumplings Recipe

Cherokee Grape Dumplings: Medicine for happy hearts

Cherokee Grape Dumpling Recipe

Forget red wine! Whether your heart is broken or bursting with love, Cherokee Grape Dumplings provide the sweetest Valentine’s Day medicine, full of antioxidants known to improve heart health and reduce inflammation (among other cool things).

Oh, and unlike red wine, Grape Dumplings are family-friendly… so go ahead, give your littlest sweethearts a bowl. It’s sure to make their hearts smile.

But – wait! What are Grape Dumplings?

I asked myself this exact question when my friend Deborah handed me a thin cookbook autographed by Cherokee National Treasure, Betty Jo Bean Smith. Constructed with 5 sheets of computer paper and two staples, Traditions in the Kitchen: Favorite Cherokee Meals isn’t available online or in bookstores, but it contains Cherokee treasures such as Poke Eggs and Fried Squirrel. Most of Betty’s recipes use ingredients that locals could easily forage in Oklahoma (as with poke, a leafy plant many might mistake for a weed… and, of course, squirrel, those innocent critters who practically offer themselves up for dinner at Tulsa’s Rose Garden, where I’ve witnessed them climbing people’s legs for peanuts). But it was the grape dumpling recipe that stopped me in my tracks – a concept I’d never heard of before.

Cherokee Cookbook

Grape dumplings are everything good.

Think soft strips of dough poached in an entire pot of grape juice. Some dumplings are no more than water (or grape juice) and flour, while others are more like a biscuit, leavened with baking powder and butter or shortening. Many roll them out thinly, but I like them a bit on the plumper side.

Here’s the best part… As the dumplings simmer, flour from the dumplings naturally thickens the grape juice into a sweet, dark purple gravy that makes wine seem bitter and hot fudge boring. While some might serve the warm dumplings in a bowl without fuss or ceremony, a little cream or vanilla ice cream on the side is lovely.

Cherokee Grape Dumplings Recipe

Cherokee Grape Dumplings Recipe

Cherokee Grape Dumpling Recipe

Cherokee Grape Dumplings Recipe

What kind of grape juice to use?

Grape Dumplings are a traditional part of Cherokee and Choctaw cooking. You can use a bottle of concord grape juice to keep things simple, but the first Grape Dumplings were simmered in a mash of wild Muscadine grapes (which grow from Oklahoma to Florida and from Texas to Delaware). These deep purple, thick-skinned grapes are also known as Possum Grapes and are rumored to be sour until the first freeze:

These grapes are sour even after they’ve turned a dark purple until a hard freeze came along, then they turn sweet. In other words, they “play possum” until a freeze and that’s how they got their name of “possum grapes.” Though I never tested this personally, my mother and stepfather swore it was true. (Garden Forums)

"Vitis rotundifolia". Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -

The dessert’s creation, a result of locals needing to use up a plentiful harvest, reminds me of Canadian Maple Dumplings, which are – get this – soft bits of dough simmered in maple syrup (star, exclamation point, bevel and emboss!!). As you can imagine, Canadians came up with Maple Dumplings thanks to the availability of maple trees and so, so, so much maple syrup. We can thank plentiful harvests and creative local cooks for both of these Oh-my-goodness-that’s-good desserts.

When plants get the feels, medicine is born.

So, you’re on board with Grape Dumplings, but you’re wondering why I’ve dubbed them Medicine for a happy heart. Here’s the skinny: plants have long provided special nutrients and even medicine to humans. Cherokee Indians have a long tradition of acknowledging and even celebrating the contributions of foraged plants to medicine. In fact, there’s an old Cherokee legend that explains why wild plants have been giving humans medicine since waaaaaaay before pharmacies became a street corner standard.

Cherokee Village - seeing how Cherokees lived in 1710

Ava & I inside a winter family house, listening to our guide | Cherokee Village reconstruction (c. 1710)

My husband is part Cherokee on his mother’s side; we recently went to Cherokee Village in Tahlequah, Oklahoma to learn more about this part of his heritage. There isn’t much known except that the Cherokee woman married a white man, moved out of state, and never put her name on the roll. Many Cherokee tried to hide this way so they could avoid discrimination. We felt it was important for Ava to learn more about this part of her lineage. We also want to start telling her Cherokee stories, like the History of Medicine, which I’ve retold in my own words below.

A Cherokee Legend tells the History of Medicine:

There once was a time when all of Creation lived in harmony. Every type of creature and object was able to speak easily together. In those days humans were few in number and helpless. The Plant People, Standing People, and Stone People (representing the plants, trees, and rocks) gave the two-leggeds everything they needed. Even the Animals sacrificed themselves for food. Their only request was that the two-leggeds ask before taking anything, give thanks for the sacrifice, and take only what was needed.

But when the two-leggeds grew in numbers they began to think that the Web of Life revolved around them. They soon forgot their promises and began to kill without asking, never gave thanks, and greedily snatched more than what was needed. The Animals, now feeling threatened, banded together and discussed what to do to protect themselves. They decided that, if a two-legged killed an animal and did not give thanks for the sacrifice, the Chief Animal Spirit would afflict them with a terrible disease.

But the plants felt this was too harsh. “If humans don’t find their place in the Web of Life, they will be wiped out by disease. Though the two-leggeds trample, dig, and burn us, we feel compassion for them. If they will listen, we will help them. For every disease the Chief Animal Spirit brings to them, the Plant People will provide a cure. They simply need to pay attention when we speak.”

Cherokee Tribal Council

Tribal council house with logs facing each of the 4 major directions | Cherokee Village reconstruction (c. 1710)

A “Cure” for your Valentine?

After learning Cherokee’s history of medicine, I have a feeling the Plant People spread wild Muscadine grapes around Oklahoma for more than bird food.

My husband, Keith grew up in rural Oklahoma on a meat-and-potatoes diet and has a lot of heart issues (specifically high blood-pressure and atrial fibrillation). I can’t help but wonder if the antioxidants in grapes can help with his troubles. I’ve read that they can help widen blood vessels, which would theoretically help reduce the likelihood of stroke or inflammation. While I don’t see him getting off his medicine after one helping of Grape Dumplings (no, really… don’t go off your medicine after eating these!), the way I look at it, eating a few extra antioxidants can’t hurt… especially in a guy who, when given the chance, will put half a jar of grape jelly on a slice of toast. At the very least, it will connect my husband and daughter a little more to their Cherokee ancestors.

Keith and Ava | Global Table Adventure

P.S. Three different times while writing this post I accidentally typed the word “Grumplings.” #newfavoriteword


Traditions in the Kitchen: Favorite Cherokee Meals from Betty Jo Bean Smith, Cherokee National Treasure (sold locally)
Choctaw & Cherokee Recipes (with video)
Cherokee Recipes, Cooking Tips and Lore, by Dean Tackett
Washington Post: Concord Grape Dumplings
Oklahoma Foraging

Cherokee Grape Dumplings just might be the perfect Valentine’s Day dessert. When you share a warm bowl of Grape Dumplings with your lover, you’ll give them a smile and a healthier heart.

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This traditional Cherokee Grape Dumpling recipe makes for a fun dessert. Unless birds have scattered possum grape seed in your garden, you'll have to settle for concord grape juice. Ultimately this is quite a bit quicker than mashing your own grapes. Enjoy with vanilla ice cream or a drizzle of cream.Cherokee Grape Dumplings: Medicine for happy hearts
Servings Prep Time
6people 15minutes
Cook Time
Servings Prep Time
6people 15minutes
Cook Time
For the dumplings
For cooking
Serving suggestions
For the dumplings
  1. Whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender or 2 knives until the butter is pea-sized or smaller. Add in the 1/2 cup grape juice and mix until just combined. (If you overmix it, it'll be tough)
  2. On a heavily floured board, press the dough into a flat disc. You can roll it thinly, but I like them a little on the thick side. Cut into bite-sized bits with a pastry cutter or ravioli wheel.
For cooking
  1. Heat up the remaining grape juice and sugar in a large skillet with high sides until simmering. Drop in the dumplings and simmer for 10-12 minutes, stirring once or twice to make sure they don't stick together. The grape juice should thicken into a sweet gravy. Serve immediately in bowls either plain, with heavy cream drizzled on top, or a big scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Recipe Copyright Sasha Martin, Global Table Adventure. For personal or educational use only.


Food Scrapbooking 101: Create a travelog of your cooking adventures


Cooking the world was the greatest gift I could give my family – full of delicious memories and learning opportunities. But what to do with all the pictures we took? As food tourists we armed ourselves with cameras and, just like real tourists trekking across the globe, we snapped pictures of every culinary landmark in our kitchens and around our dining tables. Hundreds of them! We uploaded our pictures here and on Instagram, feeling pleased with our work as parents.

But children don’t live on Instagram.

I had an uncomfortable realization the other day. My daughter, Ava, is just six years old. She ate a meal from the world’s 195+ countries by the time she was 4 1/2 years old. It is a scientific fact that, though her taste buds will always remember our adventure (making her much less picky than she otherwise might be), she might not.

The only time Ava sees photos from our Global Table Adventure is when I explicitly sit down with her at the computer. Our lives are incredibly busy. As you can imagine, this rarely happens.

Since the littlest among us don’t scroll through feeds to take in their world (thank goodness) we need to come up with something else.

Thankfully, there is a better way.

Food Scrapbooking 101

We can help our children cherish their Global Table Adventures with a Food Scrapbook – something they can hold in their hands, store on their bookshelves, and update as much as they’d like. They can keep their scrapbook until they’re grown, at which time they can recreate the dishes for their children. How beautiful is that?

Longtime readers, Midori and Brian, recently shared the scrapbook they made for their niece and nephew and I fell in love.

It was so great I wanted to share it with you, along with 5 Tips for creating a fantastic, fun, fascinating… Food Scrapbook!

1. Only scrapbook your favorite meals


It doesn’t matter whether you started cooking the world a decade ago or last weekend. Just jump in where you are. Remember, only the most remarkable meals are worth scrapbooking (I’d rather have a Food Scrapbook filled with 16 awesome memories than one hundred mediocre ones). Oh, and then there’s this little nugget to keep in mind:

Originally, we wanted to keep track of every recipe and any adjustments we made (or wanted to make), but we quickly fell behind and realized how long it would take to actually do that. (Brian)

Start by creating a page for your top 5 favorite recipes. You can always add more later.

2. Embrace imperfection


Look how happy these kids are! This is the moment they got their Global Table Adventure scrapbook from Brian and Midori. It is more important to enjoy the scrapbook than fuss over making every detail perfect. True story: I still have the scrapbook I started for my wedding. It’s unfinished, collecting dust at the back of the closet… all because I put pressure on myself to make it “just right.” Unfortunately, “just right” meant it never got done. When I switched to an online editor I filled 300+ pages (including scans of our wedding cards and more) in a short amount of time.

  • If you’ve already completed your Global Table Adventure, you might find working digitally is quicker. I love Blurb (that’s what I used for my wedding book).
  • If you are still cooking the world and need the ability to keep adding to your Food Scrapbook, a simple 3-ring binder with plastic inserts will do the job. That’s what Midori and Brian did! The plastic inserts also make it spill resistant.

Whatever version you choose, all scrapbooks can be embellished with markers and glue… a sure way to get the kids involved.

3. Use a map for the table of contents


This is my favorite part about Brian and Midori’s Food Scrapbook. They used a world map as the table of contents! Simply write page numbers next to each country or continent. When the urge to recreate a favorite meal overtakes your family, you’ll be able to flip to the appropriate section in seconds. It’s also super easy to update – genius!

4. Make your Food Scrapbook personal


The most important (and fun) part of a Food Scrapbook is personalizing it. Do you like to match photos of your meal with anime? Midori, Brian and their friends do! Your interests make your Global Table Adventure different than mine. Your scrapbook should also reflect your personality.

Include unique details like:

  • Photos of the people involved
    Did you cook with your great grandfather or a cousin you rarely see?
  • Photos of the cooking process
    Document unusual experiences like working with banana leaves or rolling your own sushi for the first time.
  • Photos (or drawings) of traditional decorations
    Did a meal call for a special piece of equipment, like a tagine? Did the cooking method have an unusual step? Do a little sketch or include a photo!
  • Photos of the countries
    Find an old atlas or encyclopedia at the thrift store and cut it up to add international flavor to each page.
  • Recipes with your own special tweaks
    It’s okay to clip recipes from outside sources as long as they’re for your eyes only (ie. you aren’t making copies or selling your scrapbook at a fundraiser). Otherwise you’ll need special permission.
  • Receipts from interesting purchases
    Did you go to a cool international market and buy your first 50 pound bag of rice? Tape the receipt in your book.
  • Unusual food packaging
    Food packaging can be a work of art, especially if written in another language. Make sure it’s clean, then glue it in your scrapbook!
  • List of favorite resources
    When your child grows up, they might want to continue their Global Table Adventure. Add a list of resources in the back to help guide them on their stovetop travels.


5. Stay inspired


Inspiration can come from many places. These photos are just a few of the photos shared by the amazing Global Table Adventure community on Instagram (#GlobalTableAdventure).  Browse around, get inspired and continue your adventure knowing you’re in great company!  You might think of a new dish to try – or a new way to serve it, perfect for your beautiful, new scrapbook.

Instagram photos by the lovely…  @midorifaye (blog),  @ckeegan_foodandfoto (blog),  @busymamas (blog),  @mamadances,  @d.nev.richardson,  @sarah.jean,  @rebalowrie,  @laurenaiken1,  @haleyy_summers,  @backofthetaptap (blog).  Thank you for being a part of our community!


To help you on your Global Table Adventure, I created a FREE Starter Guide. These 45 pages are complete with tips for dealing with picky eaters, a “pact” for the whole family to sign, tips for hosting potlucks, and more – all to help make cooking the world a fun part of your lifestyle. Teachers and home educators will also enjoy my FREE Printable Passport Book for tracking progress through the countries (you might even want to create a mini food scrap book with it!).

Cheers, from our Global Table Adventure to yours!


Recipe for Tanzanian Coconut Potato Soup

Tanzania’s Fairytale “Coconut Potato Soup” | Supu Viazi

Recipe for Tanzania's Coconut Potato Soup

A spoonful of Tanzania’s Coconut Potato Soup garnished with moons of buttery avocado will transport you to the windswept slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro.  Never fear: The howl you’ll hear as you chow down won’t be the wind on your face, or some dangerous beast – but rather the horn of the Wakonyingo, calling for help.

Wakonyingo: Fact or fiction?

"Mawenzi Cone at sunrise from Kilimanjaro crater rim" by Sbork - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Sunrise view from Kilimanjaro Crater Rim towards the Mawenzi Cone” by Sbork.

More than a hiker’s haven, Mount Kilimanjaro is a wellspring of legends involving the Wakonyingo pygmies. The stories fall somewhere between history and fairy tale. History reports that the Wakonyingo were an early tribe inhabiting Kilimanjaro, driven out or absorbed by invading tribes. The fairy tales report a far more interesting story – that the Wakonyingo fled beneath the mountain, where they remain today.

Legends claim they are still down there, hidden from sight in a network of tunnels and caves, living a life any gnome would love. They keep their cattle with them and even grow banana trees in their earthen lairs. Ladders from their caves are said to reach the heavens.

Turns out this underground lifestyle isn’t so far-fetched.

Tanzania's Tunnels - Photo by Robbie Todorovich, The Big Adventure

Chagga tunnel, Mount Kilimanjaro – Photos by Robbie Todorovich, The Big Adventure


Chagga caves and tunnels were often masked by huts (photo by Meku84) and accessed by wooden ladders (photo by Robbie Todorovich, The Big Adventure).

The Chagga people (also Chaga), who’ve lived on the slopes of Kilimanjaro for several hundred years now, once dug tunnels to hide from invaders. They went so far as to keep their cows and kitchen underground. To stay secret, they used elaborate passwords at the mouths of the tunnels and even placed the underground kitchen beneath an above-ground hut. The hut always had a fire lit so the extra smoke wouldn’t be noticed by enemies. These tunnels can still be seen today.

The original Mr. Potato Head

Most hikers will never see the Wakonyingo, but if you venture off the beaten path you might catch one on a rare above-ground excursion. It is said that if you stumble upon a Wakonyingo, you will know him by his enormous head.

Legend states Wakonyingo’s heads are so heavy they sleep upright (for fear of being unable to pick themselves back up, off the ground). I searched for drawings in vain, but I like to imagine their epic noggins are similar in scale to Mr. Potato Head.

No doubt this is a dangerous life – any stumble or slip would leave the Wakonyingo incapacitated. As a safety precaution, they wear horns around their necks.

Sounding the horn is the fairyland equivalent of “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”

Will you eat dinner tonight? Depends.

Ernst Platz, Eingeborenensiedlung vor dem Kilimandscharo, 1898

“Eingeborenensiedlung vor dem Kilimandscharo,” Ernst Platz (1898)

The Wakonyingo like to help the poor and play tricks on the greedy. A popular Chagga folkstory relates two brothers walking through the mountainside:

The first came upon an old woman who asked him to clean her eyes. He refused and walked on until he found a circle of the Wakonyingo, but not understanding who they were, he referred to them as children, asking when their fathers would be home. They told him to wait, as their fathers would return soon, and every time he renewed his question, they told him the same thing. Finally when night fell, he gave up, and and had to stumble home hungry in the dark. His brother went the same way some time later, and helped the old woman, who out of gratitude told him not to insult the Wakonyingo by calling them children. When he came upon their circle, he spoke to them as venerated elders, relating his family’s troubles with their cattle, and asking their chief for his advice. In return, he was rewarded with food, drink, and sent home with a full herd of cattle from the tribe. (Fairies on Kilimanjaro)

In summary, the Wakonyingo remind you to be polite to strangers and those who appear different from yourself. They’re not above delaying your dinner if you can’t handle these basic social skills. On the other hand, they will be more than happy to invite you to dinner if you show some interest in their community.

I’m a fan.

Eating “Supa Viazi” with the Wakonyingo

Recipe for Tanzanian Potato Soup

If you’d like to share a meal with the Wakonyingo (and get in their good graces), try whipping up a pot of homemade soup.

Many Tanzanian soups are thickened with coconut milk and include raw bananas (not plantains) or potatoes for filler. If meat is available, chicken or beef may be added. I recently stumbled across a Peace Corps cookbook with  recipe for Tanzanian Supu Viazi, or Coconut Potato Soup on National Geographic’s blog, The Plate and thought making an adaptation would be a fun way to get in the Wakonyingo’s good graces.

What is Supu Viazi?

At it’s heart, Supu Viazi is a simple potato soup with Tanzanian flare.

The coconut milk is key. Coconut trees flourish on Tanzania’s coastline, east of Kilimanjaro, making it a signature of local soups.

[In Tanzania] About 25 million coconut palms are cultivated on approximately  252,000 ha. The crop supports the livelihood of more than 300,000 rural households.*

A ladle or two of coconut milk is enough to give a large pot a swirl of creamy, tropical flavor.

Another signature component of Supu Viazi is the pepper, onion, and tomato base. This trio is so popular in Tanzania (and throughout sub-Saharan cooking), one bite tastes like home to locals (in much the same way as the cooking base “mirepoix” – onion, carrot, and celery – is classically French). Spicy or bell peppers work equally well in this base.

Recipe for Tanzanian Coconut Potato Soup

Last, but not least, be sure to cook the base down until the wet mixture dries into a paste. As it toasts, the flavor will deepen.  Give the whole mix a gentle bubble; the coconut will mingle with the softened potatoes in a dreamy way…


Finally, add the avocado garnish and you’ve created quite the fairy tale.

And that is a story I want to be a part of.

Recipe for Tanzania's Coconut Potato Soup

Texts & Resources

Kilimanjaro and Its People by Charles Dundas
Myths and Legends of the Bantu by Alice Werner
The Heartbeat of Indigenous Africa by R. Sambuli Mosha
Fairies on Kilimanjaro
Kumbe I can Cook! (2012 Peace Corps Cookbook)

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Soups in Tanzania are typically thickened with coconut milk, which gives our Supu Viazi lovely, tropical flare. Substitute in one green banana for one potato to add even more local flavor. Enjoy on a cold winter's day, while huddled by a fire ... or in an underground tunnel with the mysterious Wakonyingo people. My version is inspired by the recipe in "Kumbe I can Cook," the 2012 Peace Corps Tanzania Cookbook.Tanzania's Coconut Potato Soup | Supu Viazi
Servings Prep Time
4-6people 15minutes
Cook Time
Servings Prep Time
4-6people 15minutes
Cook Time
  1. In a medium pot over medium heat, sweat onion and garlic in oil until translucent (about 10 minutes). Add the peppers and carrots. Continue cooking another 5 minutes.
  2. Add the diced tomatoes, then increase heat to medium-high and cook vigorously until the juices evaporate and the tomatoes soften into a dry paste - this could take 10-15 minutes. Season and stir occasionally. While you could skip this step, toasting the tomatoes adds great flavor to an otherwise simple soup.
  3. Add the potatoes, the coconut milk and water. Add the salt and pepper and continue cooking until the potatoes are tender (20-30 minutes). Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary.
  4. Serve hot with slices of avocado.

Recipe Copyright Sasha Martin, Global Table Adventure. For personal or educational use only.