Ming Tsai cooks up a storm. He is the star of three TV food shows: "Simply Ming," "East Meets West," and "Ming's Quest." In addition, he is the author of three cookbooks, and recently introduced Blue Ginger, a line of frozen foods based on his Asian-inspired recipes. At home, the celebrity chef regularly invites his two young sons into the kitchen to help him prepare fun dishes — and to bring them closer together as a family. "The most important aspect of cooking with your kids is engaging them," says Ming. "This is your time to learn about their day and also let them express themselves creatively." We asked Ming to tell us about his own childhood experiences in the kitchen and how to make the act of cooking with kids so rewarding.
Parent & Child: You began cooking when you were a kid. How did you get started?
Ming Tsai: My parents, grandparents, and other family members were great cooks. My mom used to teach classes and own a restaurant, so she has an amazing library of recipes at her fingertips. I'd help the older family members. As a kid, you could always have a job in the kitchen, even if it was just picking bean sprouts.
P&C: How old were you when you made your first dish by yourself?
Ming: I was 10. I made fried rice from scratch. When I saw how my family and friends enjoyed it, and how I got praised, I realized that not only did I like food, but I also liked to make people happy with food.
P&C: What kinds of dishes do you make with your own kids?
Ming: We usually make muffins, cookies, fried rice, and in the summer, freezer Popsicles. Our favorite is spring rolls. I make the filling, chill it in the fridge, and then we roll them together. Then, of course, I fry them. Pretending to make spring rolls is also our favorite tickle game. Our boys are the cutting boards, and I mimic cutting shiitakes, leeks, and other ingredients on them. Then, I roll them up and fry 'em. Tickle Spring Roll is the first thing they ask for when I get back from a trip.
P&C: In what ways does learning to cook benefit young children?
Ming: Children learn a skill, and there's math, creative thinking, and problem solving involved. Also, kids who are learning to cook usually become a bit more careful about what they put into their bodies.
P&C: How can parents get their kids to try new flavors?
Ming: Everyone likes food that has good, deep flavor to it. To get it, you use aromatics, the most popular of which are onions and garlic. Now, my boys hate seeing onions and I'm sure a lot of kids feel the same way. So, I'll grate one into lightly heated oil and start the flavor base that way. By the time the dish is cooked, the onion has softened so you can't detect the texture, but the flavor is there.
P&C: What's your advice for getting a child to give cooking a try?
Ming: It should be a fun, creative process. Let your child help decide what you're going to make, and then give him tasks that are important, while still age-appropriate.