It has taken me a greater part of my life to publicly accept that I don’t enjoy cooking. Household duties have always been gendered in my family, like all traditional Indian families. The women spend a major part of their everyday life in the kitchen. Growing up in a joint family, I have seen my mother and my aunts cooking all meals for the family. No one felt the need to question this and no one ever did. The men of the family provided the raw materials and our mothers spent hours cleaning, cutting, chopping, and cooking delicacies. My mother has always maintained that she does not like cooking the regular everyday fare. My grandmother preferred cooking snacks to the usual lunch and dinner and breakfast. Perhaps it is genetic or perhaps, I have found other more exciting hobbies. I find that taking a nap or enjoying a good read during the same time it takes to cook dinner a better preoccupation, a better utilization of time. But one cannot talk about not enjoying cooking in social circles. It is considered bad form, almost. How can you be a good wife if you are not cooking up exotic dishes for your husband? How can you be a good mother if you are not baking cakes for your children’s birthdays? Stereotypes abound and it is automatically presumed that if you are a woman, then you would be an expert cook of the dishes of your region. If you are a woman, society expects you to not only bear the brunt of cooking but also to be enjoying it. I find the whole notion of expecting women to enjoy spending hours cooped up in the kitchen, sadistic and sexist. I intend to change that by teaching my son how to cook and also help out in the kitchen.
But I am getting ahead of myself. What is it about cooking that I don’t like? I nurture an intensely curious nature which drives me to get to the root of a problem. ‘Why’ is my favourite question. Needless to say, I wanted to know why I am genetically/socially/biologically (who knows which link was the weakest) predisposed to dislike cooking. I decided to ask Google. A brief internet browsing revealed that most people do not like cooking because they think the recipes are too confusing, ingredients too difficult to procure, and that meal planning is too complicated. I am happy to announce that none of these things pose a threat to me. First, all recipes in Indian families, as far as I know, are passed down orally through generations. So, there is never any confusion regarding recipes because there is never any specificity as far as instructions are concerned. Every time I ask my mother about a recipe, her standard response to questions about ingredients is ‘according to your taste’. Indian cooking is mostly about estimation because we have a holistic approach to cooking. How the food smells, looks, and tastes are the only parameters by which we can judge its edibility. Likeability is a different matter. Garam Masala, one of the most common mixture of spices vary from region to region, and also, from household to household. The ingredients are mostly the same but their proportional combination changes the taste of the dish. So, if one is cooking Rajma (red kidney beans), then the garam masala has to be the Punjabi version to get the authentic taste of the region. Second, the problem of meal planning. I don’t envisage it as a problem at all. One needs to be conscientious as far as the nutritional requirement of the family is concerned and ensure that a balanced diet is being provided and meals are immediately simplified. Now, whether eating the same things (from the same ingredients) can bore you out of your minds is something else entirely. So, where is the problem, you ask? And no, I am not looking around the room finding things I hate.
In any case, hate is a strong word. I have a personal dislike for the word. I remember writing a poem about it when I was a teenager. It was mostly teenage angst but that is not the point. The point is that I do not hate cooking. I am a sensory person and I love the aromas, flavours, and textures of foods. I love the warm smell of freshly baked bread and earthiness of brewing coffee. I love the pungent aroma of onions frying in ghee and the tanginess of oranges when you cut into them. I love the sticky sweet fragrance milk boiling. Julie and Julia is one of my favourite movies. I love Nigella Lawson’s passion for cooking. I have diligently watched all seasons of Masterchef Australia and highly recommend all of the above to anyone even mildly interested in anything to do with cooking. I enjoy watching shows where they cook in the wilderness, and shows about street food. There is something remarkably sensory about watching butter melting in a pan or watching Charlize Theron describe the different notes of the spiciest sauces on the planet. So, what is it about cooking that I do not like? What has cooking ever done to me to garner so much dislike? The problem is not that I cannot cook. It is that I don’t like to.
I wish one liked what everyone likes.Virigina Woolf
I wish I could say that I like cooking. I find that the fundamental logic behind cooking is flawed. One spends hours and hours in preparation and then everything comes down to the equivalent of the flip of a coin. Either one’s culinary endeavours are a spectacular success and all plates are wiped clean in a matter of minutes or there is stunned silence at the table as everyone tries to be polite and time drags on in tandem with escalating discomfort and increasing frequency of averted gazes. No matter how the coin lands, after all the ‘toil, trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble’, one is left with a sink full of dirty dishes and/or bowls of leftover; not to mention the Himalayan task of cleaning the kitchen, which looks like a scene from Saving Private Ryan. I am aware that there are many who find none of these eventualities and/or certainties disturbing and unflinchingly go about the task(s) with missionary zeal. I am not the one to shirk responsibility and I go about doing all that needs to be done. In fact, I clean up while cooking, a habit I inculcated from the Nutrition classes I took in school. But I still find cooking a futile exercise. There is too much time and effort put into it and not much to be jubilant about after. I find it distressing, to say the least. I know quite a few people who will disagree with me, pointing to the pleasure one derives at the sight of happy faces at the dinner table. It is the pleasure one draws from the appreciation of one’s talents, thereby making it an exercise whose accountability is dependent upon other people’s approval. In short, it is not a self-sufficient activity, like other creative pursuits; unless one is passionate about it. Passion, I am afraid, I do not feel, for cooking. Eating, however, is a different matter.
Cooking is eulogised as a skill which brings pleasure to people but it is in fact, I believe, masochistic in nature where one is expected to find enjoyment although if one looks at it closely, it will be apparent that there is much tedium (and pain, in some cases) involved. I believe that eating is a social activity and one can truly relish what one is served on the plate when there is someone to share the meal with. I extend that analogy to cooking. I enjoy cooking if there is someone else pottering around in the kitchen, helping me with the cutting and cleaning and chopping and stirring, without judgement or criticism. In other words, I find cooking fun when my best friend (and now husband) is around to help. The only exception I am willing to make is cooking a relaxing and elaborate Sunday breakfast/brunch. There’s something thoroughly cathartic about cooking a Big Sunday Brunch. But that’s because I am a breakfast person. Otherwise, cooking is a chore, a bore, and an utter waste of time. I find that I like cooking if it isn’t too time-consuming. A cheese and tomato grilled sandwich? Done. I like cooking when I can let them cook themselves while I catch up on some reading. I hate waiting around for the pot to boil, so to say. Rice in a pressure cooker? Done. Slow-cooking some Indian dal or letting the chicken simmer on low flame? Done. My biggest fear is that I will be subsisting on boiled potatoes and rice on days when there won’t be anybody in the house to share a meal with.
I have immense respect for people, and I mean, standing-ovation-level respect, for people who like/love cooking. I know people who happily cook (sometimes all three meals) for the family most days of the year. I find the idea stressful. I know people who not only do the daily cooking, but also cook special meals/dishes on weekends or on special occasions. It is the same as my interest in reading. I have been asked many a times by different people how I find the time or energy for books. I know people who make wine, bread, cookies, pasta, and ice cream from scratch at home. I am at complete awe of them. I do wish to bake bread at home some day and that is only because I am dissatisfied with any of the generic, large-scale produce available in the market. For the same reason, I would like to make thukpa some day. As for my cravings for Chinese, Mughlai, Italian, Mexican, British, Japanese, and Thai cuisine, I am quite content with what is available out there in restaurants.