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I’m suddenly an impossibly cute seven-year-old girl. My mom owns a restaurant and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico is coming to dine. This evening. He’s requested his favorite dish, arroz con pollo, and Pierre, the restaurant’s sous chef who’s just been assigned to prep the dish, is in a state of mental anguish: He has neither the knowledge nor the ingredients to bring the requested meal to fruition before dinner service.
Considering the fact that I’m 23, sitting in an office in Chelsea and near a chef whose name is actually Josh, this is all a highly unlikely situation. Unless, of course, I’m playing a video game. Which I am. Thanks to Issa’s Edible Adventures, and a capacity to suspend disbelief, I’ve become Issa, a seven-year-old who’s just embarked on a mission to collect the ingredients necessary to help Chef Pierre feed a Puerto Rican judge his dinner of choice.
Aliya LeeKong, a longtime community member, chef, and cookbook author, conceived of and created the educational app for kids. She wanted to make something that acknowledged a sense of multiculturalism—her mother is Indo-Pakistani, her father East African—and convey that to a generation of young, technologically literate children. After the initial kitchen sequence, the app launches into a continent-crossing, culture-spanning adventure that sees Issa, the protagonist and avatar through which you play, zooming across the world in a spaceship collecting ingredients, all with the help of her sidekick pig, Tartufo.
“I came up with this story that was inspired by my daughter,” LeeKong tells me. “It’s this great place where my knowledge as a chef and my knowledge as a mom came together. I decided that based on things I’d been seeing with my daughter, we were missing a lot of faces in new media that showcased different colors.” The app’s main character, Issa, is a loose projection of LeeKong’s daughter, Asya. “Her father is black Trinidadian, I come from a South Asian background. I just felt like there needs to be more regular—not diversity for diversity’s sake—but more of an everyday thing where you see different color in different roles.”
The game’s trajectory has a storybook feel: You follow Issa from her mom’s kitchen, in a restaurant behind the United Nations, to locales across the world, collecting ingredients and histories along the way. In the simulation I played, Issa and Tartufo hop in their spaceship to gather annatto seeds in Ecuador, green olives in Spain, and rice from paddies along the Yangtze River in China. In each destination we meet a local farmer, grower, or purveyor with a distinctly personal relationship to the ingredient in question. In Ecuador, for example, Issa encounters a group of Tsáchila people, an indigenous community who harvest and use annatto seeds for a variety of uses, among them dye. They warn her that the seeds will color her hands a vibrant red before she zooms off to Seville, where an olive merchant awaits her arrival in the Alcázar.
“How do you get kids to respect what other cultures are doing or learn the importance of being able to cook for yourself but make it fun and turn it into a game and make a character that kids love? That was sort of the impetus for this app.” The interface is equally educational and entertaining, a duality I imagine so much of children-focused content straddles these days. “I was talking to a girl who said about the game, ‘She talks funny!’ And I said, ‘Well, maybe to her, you talk funny.’ It’s getting kids to hear accents and getting them to understand that they’re a part of this amazing world but not the only part.”
The app, which is available for free in the App Store, received a five-star-review from the Educational App Store and a series of positive designations from Best Apps for Kids, two sites that rank and report on the quality of apps geared toward children. This is a far cry from the droll cartoons I used to watch for hours.
“I think that this next generation is really open to finding places of education in new media in a way that previous ones didn’t have access to,” LeeKong tells me. “The distribution is easy—someone just has to go to the App Store. I had someone download in Spain, which is really cool. As a mom, I’m always looking for educational apps to fill up that 20-minute time slot where I just need to make a call.”
Plus, there’s the chance to learn how to cook. After a series of jet-setting errands, Issa returns to her mother’s kitchen with her mise-en-place ready. We (and by we, I mean Issa and, by proxy, me) tossed spices and herbs into a shimmering pan of oil. We boiled rice and chopped chicken and brought it all together into a luscious dish of arroz con pollo fit for the stateliest of public officials. Chef Pierre, you can thank me later.
Issa’s Edible Adventures is available to download in the App Store.