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Who’s cookin’ Doc?

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Popular cooking shows are tipping the gender balance in the conservative Indian kitchen
Savio Victor is taller than his kitchen doorway. The door is an old architectural fumble, but he sums it up neatly in an anecdote: “When I messed up the kitchen for the first time about two months ago, my mother pointed to that door and asked, ‘You know why that is so short, Savio?’ ” At this point, Victor is distracted by the beef fry he is cooking. He wants the perfect shade of reddish brown—not brown, he emphasises, but reddish brown. He stares into the pan for several seconds—a psychic reading a teacup—and once he is promised the colour’s consent, continues, all the while grinning, “So my mother walks in—hands on her hips—and says very matter-of-factly, ‘Savio that door is so short because women in this family are short.’ ” He confesses later that she was only joking. “She actually loves that I cook. Tells me I can get by even if no one marries me,” he says.

Twenty-one-year old Savio Victor wears a grand moustache; in fact what he wears is the grandest moustache in all of Kerala. He is a student of computer engineering, is stocky (“from snacking on computer chips,” he says) and quite tall. Last Saturday, Victor made an early edition of what is to become his Christmas cake. And the week before that, chicken sauté. When I carry forth his mother’s joke and ask him if he’s building a larger doorway (metaphorically) at the altar of the old, he laughs and says: “You know what… I actually am getting them to rebuild the doorway here. I bump my head so many times these days.”

Like countless men, Victor had never thought of exploring the kitchen. If he cooked, he cooked to help with the chores; otherwise he lingered far from its reaches. What finally turned him on to the idea of expressing an interest, he says, was the idiot box. (“No, not the microwave; the other idiot box.” Victor has an assortment of kitchen-related cracks. The race between eggs and chicken featuring most prominently.)

Over the past couple of years, cookery shows and competitions on TV have whipped up a new trend; it has given shape to a new breed of men eager to don the apron. With a little exaggeration, one may venture far enough to say that it has churned a wave of difference in remoulding the male tendency of thought—ego, which is nestled, more often than not, in archaic principles from the Bronze Age. A time when men were doomed to club the sheep and drag it home; when bricklayers and the woodcutters were once thrown in a sandbox with laser guns and monster trucks.

Women tend to accuse men of being chauvinistic when it comes to household chores and cooking. They strive to fight the stereotype that a man’s place is not in the kitchen. What they seem to forget are the hackneyed ideas that hold men at bay in the first place. Take the quintessential television commercial for instance: the husband fumbles at home, unable to separate cocaine from salt; he is pale faced, and the background music is as if from a comedy flick. It’s not too long before he clubs himself in the head several times and calls it quits. The wife takes over from there, admiring him for his cutesy experiment. Well, it’s either that or a take-out.

The everyday man is made to understand that his place is not in the kitchen; that household chores are meant to fail him, and he, them. An interest generated by popular media on the subject of cooking goes a long way in dispelling such stereotypical notions.

Following the scent of this brewing phenomenon, I take my thoughts to the quiet and sheltered buildings of one of Delhi’s most respected restaurants, Uzuri Deck and Dining. There are Porsches and BMWs parked by the road outside, drivers in front seats and engines still running—a testament to fine dining. The restaurant is managed by a former contestant of MasterChef South Africa, Guy Clarke, and ex-sous chef at the celebrated Fat Duck (UK), Rishim Sachdeva. Sachdeva took to cooking at the young age of 14; his father loved cooking and his family cherished the affair as an art. Needless to say, he saw it as a practice both sexes could enjoy, though he confessed that once in a while “the occasional friend would come along and give him the odd eyeball.”

“I suppose these stereotypes originated because women used to work at home, while men earned money. They ought to be extinct by now; a man who likes to cook is not feminine. I mean is a woman any less feminine because she doesn’t cook?” he asks. He feels cooking competitions and other such shows will shift the paradigm for the new generation: “It won’t be considered a man’s job or a woman’s job. Hopefully, in the household, it’ll just become another ‘something’ you do. I mean everybody has got to eat.” Sachdeva also feels that the industry of food and cooking is booming in the urban society and that too at a rapid pace. He believes that the growth will penetrate the household ranks, that everyone will take an interest, and thus break up the conservative kitchen.

Of course, the difference between cooking as a chef and cooking at home is no small matter. The first is still about being the bread winner, and the second, about adopting something that is not portrayed as a man’s place; it’s about being relaxed in a household space considered largely the women’s kingdom (where she supposedly says: ‘In the kitchen, I am boss’.)

The Asian Academy of Culinary Arts in Delhi conducts a curious ‘hobby course’ for those who want to have their stint with cooking. Its takers range from housewives to accountants. “One of my students is a 40-year-old man, a multinational businessman,” proclaims Chef Lalit Mohan, associate director of the course. He feels that the wall separating the sexes in the kitchen has been nearly and completely demolished; that there is no besmirching of men who cook, but simply that men are indifferent to the whole prospect of taking an interest in the everyday kitchen unless of course pushed there by absolute necessity. “These TV shows [cookery competitions] that you talk of—they are certainly making it fashionable. And that’s not just for the upper class society, but I believe, for the middle class as well.” Mohan cites the example of Akshay Kumar who was a judge at MasterChef India to further his point, “He is a figment that conveys to the average Indian audience that it is stylish to cook, and that it is manly to cook.”

Chef Mohan’s classes are an intimate affair. Shortly before he enters, there is a casual chitter-chatter going on about the MasterChef Season 4 auditions that are being held in Mumbai and Delhi. Saksham Kalra, 19, is talking about one of his friends who missed the first leg of the audition. Kalra along with Sourabh Yadav, also 19, will be assisting the Chef in his session today.

Kalra’s story reads like a typical teen flick about conquering bullies and following dreams. “I started helping in the kitchen when I was about eight or nine. The other boys would play football, but I wasn’t really interested.” Was he made fun of? “Sure I was; I was called girly every single day of my waking life. Of course, it changed as I grew up. I think the scenario is completely different today, no? Take Gordan Ramsey for instance. He is a lion.”

Save for Kalra, Yadav and Chef Mohan, the class is populated by women on that particular day. It’s strangely comical and refreshing to see three men teach a classroom full of women the secrets to making a good Peas Pulav.

Among those who have taken a fancy for cooking shows and ultimately cooking, is also my father, a banker. He watched these shows when my sister put them on, and later, made it a habit to catch them late at night. Of course, he wasn’t confident in his indulgence and used to jump skyward and change channels whenever someone walked by. On most Sundays now, though, you can find him huddled over a recipe book, or hammering kitchen nails with a dry bone. If not, he’s probably at the market looking for the slimiest squid. “What happened to buying fish?” my mother would ask. “With gills?”

A few Sundays ago, while my father made me scour the internet for tedious recipes, I found a number of blogs run by men who wanted to declare their fandom for cooking (and inevitably several more blogs written by women complaining about men who didn’t cook.) ‘There are many men in India who think or have been told by their mums that they should keep out of the kitchen,’ writes Hasan Sameem in his blog Indian Man Cooking, ‘Most Indian men carry this warning to their graves.’ Clearly agitated, he goes on to write, ‘Mummy dearest cooks for them day in and day out until wifey dearest comes on board and guess what? She cooks for them day in and day out till the man actually hits the grave! Now this is the Indian culture and I am no one to question or oppose this age old tradition. I just don’t adhere to it!’

Ranjeet Saine who runs an another website called Indian Men Can Cook, where he posts regular recipes, writes in his ‘About’ page, ‘I’m a 35 year old Indian male who loves to cook… you don’t see that too often do you?’

Akshat Goel believes he does; “I’m starting to see it now, rather,” he says, “but mostly out of sheer necessity.” Goel is a furniture designer by day and the proud owner of Mimi’s Gourmet Gelato by night. A work-from-home enterprise, Mimi’s Gourmet Gelato specialises in alcohol flavored ice-cream frozen using liquid nitrogen—a stunt inspired by celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal. “When you see so many men cooking on an international platform, it does trickle down,” says Goel, “If nothing, it inspires another series of Indian television shows adapting it for an Indian audience, which in turn will breach all social ranks.”

But of course, change is a slow process; rather like Victor’s slowly browning beef fry. It takes time to acquire the perfect flavour. When my father visits his native village to see his brothers now, and somebody asks for help in the kitchen, he’ll still laugh and say, “Hey look, I strangled the hen, now you cook the meat.” Occasionally though, he might peep in to see if the curry needs a little sprucing.