The following are some ingredients that I use for the baby food I make which may need a bit of explanation. Wherever possible, I will provide the pictures of the ingredients (as the saying goes, a picture speaks a thousand words).
Most of the ingredients are common stuff that are easily available in local wet markets or supermarkets. For the less common items, I also indicated where I got them.
By no means am I an expert, so if you have any doubt about any of the ingredients, please check it out for yourself or consult somebody who knows.
Herbal Ingredients – Proceed with Caution
A word of caution regarding Chinese herbal ingredients : the ingredients I use are mild items that can be safely consumed by young children. However, do not assume that all herbs/natural remedies are safe, whether Western or Eastern herbal/natural remedies. Some herbs have strong side effects. Also, you have to understand a bit about Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and that is, the concoctions always comprise of several ingredients to balance the (side) effects of each other, and to complement each other to produce the best healing effect. For baby food, I usually steer clear of herbs with strong medicinal properties (e.g. ginseng, lingzhi). In fact, several years back, there were reports about young kids in China experiencing puberty as early as 5-6 years old because they were given strong herbal tonics. Such strong herbal tonics should not be used on children below 10 who have no no health problems.
I do use organic ingredients sometimes (e.g. brown rice) but I don’t consciously go for organic food. I think this is a matter of personal preference. Organic food is definitely more expensive than the non-organic version, and if I am not wrong, not everything labeled as ‘organic’ is really 100% organic.
Brown Rice Basics
The very first solids that Dominic got was brown rice cereal (not commercial brown rice baby food!). In our local markets, there are basically 2 kinds of brown rice – long grain and short grain – and long grain brown rice can be further divided into 2 types – white (not polished white) and red. I have not seen short grain red brown rice, although there may be such thing. Locals are more accustomed to the red long grains, which is also known locally as ‘red rice’. Some people believe that red rice has more tonic property than the other kinds of brown rice. Short grain brown rice is stickier and thicker, whereas the long grain ones are less sticky and more watery. I have used both and prefer the short grain brown because I think that the consistency and quality is better for baby food.
I have tried two ways of cooking brown rice. I have tried grinding the raw rice grains into powder, then cook the powder with water. Really hated this method because you have to keep stirring and watch the fire or else it will burn easily. I have wasted so many failed batches! Also, it is quite a bit of work to mill the rice grain into fine powder. Firstly, you have to wash the grains; then, you have to dry the grains before you can mill them. Ready-milled brown rice is available in Chinese Medicine Halls but those are the red rice version and I don’t think they bother to wash the rice beforehand. Yeeks!
After several failed attempts at the above method, I tried this second method which is, in my opinion, better by far. I simply cooked the brown rice as per normal (as how you would cook rice porridge normally, which I assume everyone knows) and put the porridge through the blender. Much less hassle and less effort needed. In case you are wondering, the reason why you need to blend the porridge is because brown rice is huskier than polished rice and hence, harder for the baby to handle. However, it is definitely more nutritious. So in order not to compromise on the nutritional quality, you can still use brown rice but just make sure you blend the porridge to ‘soften’ it.
Brown rice is more fibrous than polished rice, so the down side is that if you baby is not taking enough fluid, brown rice can be really constipating. Hence, my recommendation is this : if your baby is having constipation problem after consuming pure brown rice cereal, first and foremost, feed more fluid; and instead of purely brown rice, try a half-half combination of polished and brown rice, or a 2/3 – 1/3 combination, until you find something ideal for your baby.
Also known as Boxthorn Fruit or Kochi berries. Locally commonly known as ‘Kay Chee’ or ‘Gou Qi Zi’. Contains iron, calcium, phosphorous, etc. Taste sweet. Mainly known to be good for eyesight. These are easily available in Chinese Medicine Hall, dried goods stores and supermarkets. But I find that the supermarket ones tend to be not as fresh. Try not to get those that are really shrivelled up and dark coloured. As far as I know, what we have here all come from China. Those from Ningxia are bigger, sweeter and of better quality.
The dried, preserved version from China available in Chinese Medicine Hall, dried goods stores and supermarkets. Again, the supermarket ones are not as fresh. Suppose to contain protein, iron, calcium, phosphorus, and various vitamins. Taste sweet. A ‘general’ sort of tonic, specially good for blood and promotes strength. Again, try not to get those that are really shrivelled up and dark coloured and do try to get the pitted ones to save you the trouble of removing the seeds. Both red dates and wolfberries are good to use in porridge to provide the flavour for the otherwise bland (remember no salt in the first year) porridge. It’s one of the basic ingredients in most Cantonese double-boiled soup.
Or Shan Yao/Wai San. There are two kinds – fresh and dried. The dried ones are available in Chinese Medicine Halls but mainly used as a medicinal herb. Fresh ones are available in wet markets. Those are mainly from China. Occassionally, you can find Japanese ones in the Japanese supermarkets like Isetan or Daimaru, but they are more expensive.
Huai Shan is one key ingredient used in Si Sen Soup. It helps improve digestion and sleep. The overall function of Si Sen Soup, which is commonly cooked for young children, is to calm nerves, improve digestion, etc. I cooked this for Dominic when we came back from our first trip to the US and he was suffering from jetlag for a few days and was showing sign of hyperactivity during daytime even though he was not sleeping much at night either. His appetite was suffering also due to insufficient rest.
I am referring to the dried ones commonly found here. It is a popular practice here to use ikan bilis to cook porridge for young children. Even for adult food, it is not uncommon for people to use ikan bilis to make stock base or just add it into the dish to make it more tasty.
Choose fresh ones of reasonable size, preferably completely cleaned up (no trace of gut or heads). Cleaning up ikan bilis can be a very tedious chore. There are several kinds of ikan bilis. You will find the most variety from dried seafood stores but those common ones found in most places are fine too. Check with the shop keeper which type is best used for baby porridge.
Some people just put the ikan bilis with the rice and cook porridge. It may be useful for you to make ikan bilis powder so that you can add it into any kind of food you make, including rice porridge. It’s a bit more work at first but a lot more convenient to use. SImply wash and sun the ikan bilis, then bake them crisp in an oven (although you can fry them crisp, but I would rather not do that because of the amount of oil involved). Do not over bake. Just crisp enough for you to crush and grind into fine powder form user an electric grinder or simply with a pestle and mortar. After that, just store the powder in an airtight container. It’s a good flavouring agent (like chicken stock granules) to use in replacement of the usual seasonings which you want to avoid using (for infant below 1) or using too much (for toddlers).
I was introduced to millet by a friend in China who recommended it to me as a rich source of nutrition. I often put a handful of this into the porridge I make. The grains are really tiny. Unhulled millet is widely used as birdseed and cattle feed in the Western countries, especially in the US, but many health food stores carry hulled millet for human consumption (usually organic version). It is mentioned in the Bible*, and was used during those times to make bread. Millet has been used in China, Africa and India as a staple food for thousands of years.
[*Take thou also unto thee wheat, and barley, and beans, and lentiles, and millet, and fitches, and put them in one vessel, and make thee bread thereof, according to the number of the days that thou shalt lie upon thy side, three hundred and ninety days shalt thou eat thereof. Eze 4:9 (KJV)]
Millet is highly nutritious, non-glutinous and not an acid forming food so is soothing and easy to digest. In fact, it is considered to be one of the least allergenic and most digestible grains available and it is a warming grain so will help to heat the body in cold or rainy seasons and climates.
Millet is tasty, with a mildly sweet, nut-like flavor and contains a myriad of beneficial nutrients. It is nearly 15% protein, contains high amounts of fiber, B-complex vitamins including niacin, thiamin, and riboflavin, the essential amino acid methionine, lecithin, and some vitamin E. It is particularly high in the minerals iron, magnesium, phosphorous, and potassium.
The seeds are also rich in phytochemicals, including Phytic acid, which is believed to lower cholesterol, and Phytate, which is associated with reduced cancer risk. So it would be good for your own consumption also. I would recommend that you soak the grains for a few hours before cooking.
Some people pan-roast the grains before cooking. This enhances the nutty aroma of the grains. However, this is not absolutely necessary.
If you believe in the chinese ‘cooling and heaty’ concept of well-being, you will understand why I make barley water for Dominic almost every week. In fact, during the initial days of introducing water to Dominic (when he started solids), he would only drink barley water (with teeny amount of sugar as plain barley water can taste worse than plain water) and not plain water.
I use China barley, which is not as polished as it’s smaller, pearled cousin which people commonly use to make barley water. The properties of China barley is different from the smaller pearled barley, so please don’t confuse the two. China barley has cooling property like the common pearled barley also but not as severe, and hence more suitable for frequent consumption. China barley facilitates in preventing or reducing water retention and reduces ‘dampness’ in the body. It is good for digestive system and especially good for times when you are suffering from flu or cold.
This may seem like a taboo ingredient and yes, you should not add salt or sugar to your baby’s food if your baby is below 1 year old. However, as your baby grows up, gradually and inevitably, you will be introducing some seasoning to your baby’s food. Do remember that salt is also vital to our health and that it will never do if you eliminate salt from your diet or your kids’ diet completely.
For some mothers who have their mothers or mother-in-laws taking care of their babies, it’s a constant fight to prevent the grannies from adding salt or soy sauce to the babies’ food. It is completely unfathomable to the older generation that babies should eat bland food. They forgot that babies’ taste are not ‘spoiled’ yet and they can taste things that we cannot.
There are many brands of soy sauce in the market and it helps if you use those that have lower salt content. I highly recommend Kwong Cheong Thye’s soy sauce as it is really not very salty (I find myself piling up on this soy sauce for my own porridge sometimes) and has much better flavour and fragrance than other brands. If it is inevitable that the grannies will use soy sauce, you might feel better if the soy sauce is not so salty. Other than Kwong Cheong Thye, I have seen Kikoman advertising that their soy sauce contains something like 40% less salt. I have not tried it myself though.