Culturally Nourishing Stories: Centering Food Like Love

By guest blogger Nawal Qarooni Casiano

In my family, love looks like an intricately cooked meal. Love looks like stew left to simmer on low, all day, so the turmeric and onions caramelize into a rich sauce. Love looks like bowl after bowl served atop long-grain basmati rice, with crispy tahdig from the bottom of the pot. 

We overfeed. Like Bilal in Aisha Saeed’s gorgeous picture book about a little boy introducing his friends to daal, we must have patience to cook our Persian stews. 

Noushe-jan, my mother says. 

Noushe-jan, my Ameh says. 

Noushe-jan, I tell my children. 

The aroma of fesenjan in the house means we’ve ground walnuts to a pulp and combined it with pomegranate molasses so it’s the perfect melange of sweet and sour. Persian stews are like fine wines; the longer they sit and simmer, the more delicious they become. 

As educators, one way to share of ourselves and our students’ unique identities is by bringing alive stories of food: nourishing, layered, textured. Food is commensurate with love, in many cultures, but more than that, identity stories often rely on memories of food. When teachers and students  storytell about food rituals in school spaces,  we more readily build community, connectedness and understanding. We are able to cultivate empathy and compassion for all cultures and people. 

As educators, every decision to include a story is an omission elsewhere. Writer Arundhati Roy once said, “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s scholarship names the need for students to see themselves in texts (mirrors) while also learning about others (windows). When we consider both of these ideas, it becomes clear how critical text selection truly is. 

The framework in Reading to Make a Difference provides lenses through which educators can select texts, ensure students make connections, reflect deeply, take action and co-construct next steps for future behaviors and understandings. 

Below are several picture books that center culturally nourishing stories – ones that celebrate inclusivity and depict familial love. I included picture books, poetry, songs and video – purposefully multimodal – so students can interact with culturally nourishing stories in a variety of ways. 

In Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao, by Kat Zhang, a little girl learns to love her bao-making skills. They’re not easy to make and they’re initially imperfect, but they’re delicious in any iteration, and readers quickly notice the familial closeness and special, comforting connections that arise as a result of crafting bao together. You can share the video for making bao with students too. 


In the classroom, teachers might try using the following questions from Reading to Make a Difference to support student connections to text. 

When students have an opportunity to explore landscapes, neighborhoods, and dwellings unlike their own, how can I help them make connections to their own environment? 

When students meet characters that have experiences or family structures different from their own, how can I draw connections so that these don’t seem so different? 

When students read about new cultural ways of being and lifestyles, how will I connect these to what is familiar to them? 

Bilal Cooks Daal by Aisha Saeed is about a little boy who shares with his friends the long process of making lentil stew, from selecting the ingredients to patiently playing outside while the flavors merge together. He worries briefly about his friends not liking it but those worries quickly give way to the final touches, adding naan, fresh ginger and cilantro to serve. This is a beautiful book about friendship, community, and celebrating new experiences. 

Questions to support connection from Reading to Make a Difference:

When students meet characters that face challenges and obstacles different from their own, how will I help them build on what they already know?

When students are exposed to language and speech patterns that differ from their own, how will I help them find value in all language? 


I fell in love with Leila in Saffron by Rukhsanna Guidroz because of its enchanting descriptions of life in colors, smells and textures (“I see the color of lentils, bright and orange; pomegranates, juicy and rosy; cucumber skin, dark and green; and threads of saffron, gold and copper.”) The protagonist is Pakistani and her journey to know herself is deeply connected to the cultural wisdom of her grandmother. She uses all of her senses to absorb her family so powerfully, it feels like readers are witnessing the weaving of a gorgeous tapestry. 

Teachers and students can enjoy these stories across many days, stacking layering texts to facilitate conversation about varied cultures and nourishing traditions.

From Reading to Make a Difference, classroom teachers might specifically think about the question ‘How will students make connections across texts to build their understanding of the issue?’ 

Each of these picture books include recipes in the back, and often, nonfiction facts about the cultural background it came from. Teachers might ask students to write their own family food traditions, or create their own Flipgrid videos naming the steps of a special recipe. Students might draw pictures of their food stories or even record their family in the kitchen step-by-step. Happy food-related reading! 

For a more comprehensive resource list of food stories click here.

Nawal Qarooni Casiano is an award-winning journalist and educator with experience in New York City and Chicago schools. Nawal was a classroom teacher, curriculum developer and literacy coach before launching NQC Literacy in 2014. She and her team design professional learning experiences in dozens of schools and education spaces. She is the proud daughter of Iranian immigrants and the mother of four young multiethnic, multilingual kids, which very much shapes the way she understands learning. You can find her at the park with her four kids in Chicago’s Logan Square, at NQCLiteracy.com or on Twitter @NQCLiteracy

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