How to Turn Any Kid Food into Adult Food

July 31, 2014

Every other Thursday, we bring you Nicholas Day -- on cooking for children, and with children, and despite children. Also, occasionally, on top of.

Today: A salty, hot condiment best confined to the adult table.

Fish Sauce Chiles

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As longtime readers already know, this entire column is a bait and switch: I feed the children grown-up food and call it cooking for children. Because I am, technically.

It’s possible that this strategy may turn my desperate children into dumpster-diving freegans at a young age, not for environmental concerns, but because there have to be cheddar bunnies in there somewhere. On the other hand, dumpster diving must be great for gross motor development. 

There are sophisticated justifications for my cooking this way -- there are sophisticated justifications for everything in my life, because have you seen my life lately? -- but my children know better. They know there are always sophisticated justifications for laziness.

But even I recognize that there are limits. There are things I never cook anymore, and they almost all involve chiles. The Thai curries, the Szechuan dishes -- they are gone. They are all too spicy. Even the toddler, who once used the word “spicy” as the Official Toddler Seal of Approval, now complains when things are too spicy.  

Can we pause here to note how deeply inadequate English is for coping with the concept of spiciness? There’s the noun and the adjective, and the two have almost nothing to do with each other. You’d never call a dish with a lot of spices spicy. It’s almost as if the English language came into itself in a world in which these concepts weren’t relevant enough to bother distinguishing them. (Almost!) What this means, practically, is that there’s a period of time in which children are convinced that Herbes de Provence must make food inedibly spicy.

There is no good solution to the problem of chiles and children. (Aside from moving to Chiang Mai.) But aside from this chile oil, I have consoled myself with a condiment so simple it is hardly worth mentioning, except that so few people ever do: fish sauce plus bird chiles. That’s it. It’s a Thai staple (prik nam pla), which I first found in the extraordinary Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet, and it is indeed salty and hot. It’s also the easiest condiment I know and it is marvelously versatile, both for livening up family dinner (spoon a little over grilled vegetables; add lime juice for extra credit) or midnight snack (I rarely eat a fried egg without it).  

Fried Egg with spicy fish sauce

More: For slower mornings, a tart topping for fried eggs with less of a punch. 

Here’s the recipe, which is hardly a recipe: Take a good handful of bird chiles, chop (wear gloves or be careful), dump in a jar, cover with fish sauce. Very roughly, that means one part chopped chiles to two parts fish sauce -- a half-cup chiles, a cup of fish sauce. (Your taste may vary.) In the fridge, it keeps pretty much forever.

Will it make the children happy? Maybe not. Will it make the adults happy? Quite possibly. Which matters a lot. After all, if the kids eat what the grown-ups eat, that means that the grown-ups eat what the kids eat. So file this under: Dinner vs. Adult.

Fish Sauce Chiles

Tell us: How do you make your dinners safe for adults?

Photos by Linda Pugliese

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • fiveandspice
  • Marieke Gillessen
    Marieke Gillessen
  • weshook
  • Mags
  • Nicholas Day
    Nicholas Day
I'm the author of a book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World. My website is; I tweet over at @nicksday. And if you need any good playdoh recipes, just ask.


fiveandspice September 20, 2014
Ok, I never seem to have a chance to read these days because of my baby child, but I am trying to do a little catching up right now because he's asleep early (yippee!) and this sounds fantastic, but fantastic not because it will make our food more fun but because I think I can use this to make Mr. Baby actually eat things. I've discovered he basically won't eat food unless I add lemon, vinegar, fish sauce, or chiles. Or if it's a banana, of course. Is this something that's going to stop suddenly and he won't like spicy anymore?! Oh dear.
Marieke G. August 12, 2014
I do the same but add some salt-pickled lemons to it - it's simply delicious and we eat it on almost everything at the moment!
weshook July 31, 2014
Eventually they come back to spicy. When my grandson was little (under five years old), he would pull the salsa bowl over to him and happily eat chips and salsa. Then he went through a period of not wanting anything spicy. Now he's eight and requesting salsa again.

I tend to feed him (and my kids before him) adult food (spicy on the side during those times of "no spicy!"),
Mags July 31, 2014
Oh that's easy, I do it by conveniently not having any children ;)
Nicholas D. July 31, 2014
Phyllis G. August 3, 2014
Mags: you made me laugh out loud!
Nicholas: i grownupify my food with jalapeno pickles! now i have my 11-year-old daughter eating them too. she didn't want to miss out.