the role of food in raising bilingual children - Food is culture mural in Lisbon.

Fish, coffee and custard pastry – the role of food in raising bilingual children

pastel_de_nata76 Bilingualism, Blog, Foodie Leave a Comment

This post needs a disclaimer – I love food and it plays a huge role in my life. Some people may not feel so strongly about it. If that’s the case, they still may find this post about the role of food in raising bilingual children interesting in guiding their bilingual journey.

Food as culture

Most people will agree that culture is not just poetry, museums and ballet. The Oxford Dictionary’s definition is:

  1. “The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively”. It includes “a refined understanding or appreciation of culture”
  2. “The ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society”, to include “the attitudes and behaviour characteristic of a particular social group”.

In his book, Food is Culture*(2006), culinary historian Massimo Montanari argues that “everything having to do with food — its capture, cultivation, preparation, and consumption—represents a cultural act”. He goes on to say that “The transmission of recipes allowed food to acquire its own language and grow into a complex cultural product…”.

Food is simply another dimension of human civilisation and culture And that’s why food is relevant to raising bilingual children.

Tastes and sensations starting from birth

Without having intellectualised it much, I naturally felt inclined to expose my children to different sensorial experiences from birth. Different aromas, textures, sounds and even tastes. Even through breast milk!

As babies, I would point out things around the house and their meaning. When cooking, still today, I let them smell the spices and fresh herbs. On a couple of occasions when they were older, I pulled the spice rack out to smell and identify one by one the spices we had. We lingered over the spices used in Portuguese cuisine: cloves (cravinho), bay leaves (louro), cinnamon (canela), cumin (comilho) and paprika (Pimentão). Yes, they could smell and taste the blend in the cooked food, but adding this extra layer of sensorial experience engaged them further and, I believe, contributed to the cultural association which I hope will help form their identity.

It is not unusual to see a clear jar glass with piri piri (small fiery chilli peppers) infused in olive oil, a staple of Portuguese cuisine. The children can’t touch it but, having followed baby led weaning, we always cooked meals for the whole family and, on occasion, slipped the tiniest touch of piri piri whilst cooking to liven it up.



Cloves Spices



Fish: central to Portuguese cuisine

I love fish and sea food. Unfortunately it’s not always possible to have it as regularly as I would like it here in the UK but when we visit Portugal, my Mum always makes a special spread for us, which includes fish dishes.

When we have fish at home, my husband and I make a point of making the cultural connection. In fact, my husband was the first to mention it when the girls were little saying jokingly that “you’re not a real Portuguese if you don’t like fish” or something to that effect.

Fresh Fish Counter

Fresh Fish Counter

Last time we travelled to Portugal we visited a food market with a huge selection of fresh fish, as it is often found in Portugal (sadly, not so much in London). There were octopi and crabs still moving. The fishes’ eyes were fresh and shiny like diamonds. This experience was as important, if not more, as sightseeing the old monuments. One of the girls’ first food associated words was Peixe (fish in Portuguese)


Coffee please!

 Coffee is another feature of Portuguese life and culture. We have cafes instead of pubs. We ‘meet for a coffee’ (i.e. lets have drink/a catch up), we drink various shots of espresso a day.


Coffee and Portuguese Custard Tart

Coffee and Portuguese Custard Tart


I simply cannot live without coffee. We have an espresso machine at home and the girls have their own toy coffee machine. Their role play often involves dishing out cake and coffee, along the traditional English cup of tea.


Sweets for my sweet…

At home we eat many pears and oranges. The girls started peeling their ‘oranges’ (easy peelers) and making their own orange juice from an early age so they enjoyed the messy sensorial experience. It’s a small thing, but just another gesture bringing them closer to the Portuguese identity. We buy other fruits like blueberries (mirtilos), grape (uvas) and figs (figos). When having them at home, or at the supermarket, I point out that these may have come from Portugal.

Then there are those very yellow sickly traditional sweets made solely from sugar, egg and almonds – oh so Portuguese! Having a pastel de nata can become a religious ritual – for me anyway.

And there’s wine. I love red wine and make an effort to get Portuguese wine when possible, specially when we have guests. It’s one of the best in the world, though not many people know it. It also provides an opportunity for conversing about Portugal. The girls may not drink it, but they listen to the grown ups conversation and can hear us talking about the wine, its properties, the food its being eaten with, how good it is, where from, the cork which is a very Portuguese material and so forth.

And this is how we naturally weave flavours, sensations and names of food items associated with Portuguese identity in our lives in the UK. And of course, the opportunity to speak about about it… in Portuguese.

Here’s to good food and good wine. Cheers! (Saúde!)



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