Most families aren't planning to jet off to Europe, Africa or South America for a vacation anytime soon. However, there are plenty of opportunities to expose your family to different cultures right here in Chicago by simply dining out at the many local ethnic restaurants.
Chicagoans could literally eat their way around the world without ever leaving the city limits.
Introducing kids to different world cuisines is a powerful way to teach them to value differences and also understand that all cultures share commonalities (especially when it comes to family meals).
Before you explore a new cuisine with your children, be sure to provide some basic background information so they know what to expect. Take a look at the menu in advance or ask questions of your server to ensure that you order kid-friendly dishes that will keep your tiny diners satisfied.
Here are a few highly respected local ethnic restaurants to begin your culinary adventures.
1414 N. Milwaukee Ave.
This relatively new restaurant serves up modern Nepalese and Indian cuisine. Manager Dipesh Kakshapaty says there are some significant differences between the two types of food.
"Nepalese culture eats mostly a vegetable-based diet with very little use of spices and dairy products. On the other hand, Indian food relies heavily on spices and a lot of dairy ingredients," says Kakshapaty.
Despite sharing a religion and many cultural practices, Indian food has been influenced by many outside cultures and has evolved because of those influences while Nepal largely has the same cuisine it had 300 years ago, Kakshapaty says. At Cumin, most of the dishes are moderately spiced.
Kid-friendly menu suggestions: Kakshapaty says the chef can always customize the spice level or accommodate food allergies.
222 S. Halsted
Chicken malia tikka (white chicken breast marinated in mild Italian spices, cashew paste, sour cream and yogurt) is flavorful without being spicy. Other good options include palungoko saag (sauteed spinach), vegetable samosas (stuffed dough), dal makhani (lentils), naan bread, mint-cucumber raita (yogurt dip) and lassi (a yogurt drink).
In Greek culture, the family dining table is the central gathering place. "It is the single most important place for showing loved ones and friends how truly important they are to us," Manager Joe Collado says. He recommends parents treat the dining experience as a teaching tool.
"It is important to develop diverse taste buds in children and let them know that there is a vast world beyond just the basic foods," says Collado.
He says Greek cuisine is considered one of the world's healthiest because it focuses on olive oil, fresh veggies and lean meats.
Kid-friendly menu suggestions: Kids love the "sights and sounds" of the flaming saganaki cheese. The cheese is set on fire tableside as the waiter exclaims "Opa!" Other family-friendly options include tzatziki (a yogurt dip), chicken shish-kebab (skewers), and rice pudding for dessert.
4801 N. Broadway
Ethiopian cuisine features one large plate where everyone serves themselves, primarily with their hands. Tigist Reda, the chef/owner of Demera Ethiopian Restaurant, says the most well-known dish is messob, a large plate containing vegetarian, chicken, beef, and seafood options.
"In Ethiopian culture, it is very common for everyone to feed each other. The experience is about spending intimate family time together sharing food," says Reda.
She says more than half of her customers are new to Ethiopian cuisine. "The first question our server asks is whether you've dined with us before. Our entire staff takes a lot of time going through the menu and explaining it to our diners," says Reda.
Kid-friendly menu suggestions: Reda suggests ordering the family-style menu so that there will be lots of dishes for both kids and adults to try. Other good options include doro alicha wot (a mild chicken dish), shiro (yellow split pea with onion, garlic and tomato), quosta (spinach) and sambussa (stuffed dough).
1865 N. Milwaukee
Owner Henry Cerdas describes the menu at Irazu as "Latin soul cuisine-an overlap of Mexican and South American food."
The menu focuses heavily on white rice and beans. Cerdas stresses that the restaurant features a very casual, non-pretentious atmosphere suitable for kids.
Kid-friendly menu suggestions: Cerdas recommends the pepito sandwich (ribeye steak with a non-spicy lizano sauce, black bean spread and cheese on french bread). Other highlights are the "potted rooster" or gallo pinto (white rice and black beans blended with cilantro, red pepper, onion, and garlic) and the very popular oatmeal shake (a frothy, thick horchata sprinkled with cinnamon).
Caitlin Murray Giles is a full-time mother of three and part-time freelance writer living in Wicker Park.
See more of Caitlin's stories here.