What’s Cooking? Science in the great Indian kitchen!

What happens when a software engineer enters the Great Indian Kitchen which has been the undisputed domain of women for centuries? Nothing much except that the engineer in him starts tinkering with all the ingredients, process and unravels the mystery of the Indian cooking!

A free wheeling conversation with Krish Ashok, the author of ‘Masala Lab’ a book that says that cooking is really an every day science in action!
Even today, guys are seldom into cooking. Some of them consider boiling Maggi noodles as their lifetime achievement. Now, it seems many men are getting more interested in cooking. Do you think this is a revolution of sorts? How do people react to the idea of a man cooking at home!
Things are really changing at least in urban India more than rural India. Infact they are changing more than in South than in other parts of India. It is not as odd in South India to find a couple sharing cooking duties and chores at home. However, in a larger sense this is clearly changing in other parts of India. The pandemic has also forced some of this change, especially for young men living by themselves. Beyond a point, just ordering from Swiggy is not a solution. I think the lockdown and the fact that there were really times where you could not order food home forced people to say ‘I have to learn to cook’. Regardless of whether it was a two-month period or not, it did force people to really think of cooking as a basic skill. However, when it comes to men, there is no dearth of male professional chefs.

In fact, a vast majority of men are professional chefs. Again, this has to do with gender bias in the sense that women were not allowed to go down the professional route. They were supposed to cook at home, within the four walls of the kitchen.
So, it is not surprising that I get a lot of attention simply because I am a guy who is writing about home cooking and not restaurant cooking. But I do think things are changing for the better. In fact, as much as men are changing, young women of this generation are also clearly not accepting this kind of a behaviour. Today, they are openly saying that certain rules cannot be gendered and cooking is one of them. Just like taking care of a child beyond a point cannot be gendered. Otherwise, it places an unreasonable number of restrictions and challenges for women aspiring in a professional career since they have to balance everything including their career. Things are changing but these are still very early days since we are a big country. Even in my family, even today, a vast majority of men do not cook. The older ladies in my family really get awed if a guy can boil noodles or make tea but won’t bother to appreciate a woman cooking a fantastic dish because as per them, women are meant to do that. However, I think that after a couple of generations, things will really change.

Do you think cooking is a life skill?
Absolutely! In our world, there is climate change happening, there is an increasing awareness about sustainability practices regarding food. So, hence understanding what you eat and where it comes from has become essential. If you go by what’s currently happening with the farmer protests and the other problems of the world, I think the public knowledge of not what just you are eating but also of how it comes is also all the more important. I am not saying everyone needs to learn how to grow their own crops but at least they need to understand where something like bread comes from. They need to understand what is local. The fact of the matter is that there are reasons why certain ingredients are used in certain parts of India. They could be used because they are local, they grow in those climatic conditions and they will not deplete the resources of that area. But these days things are changing just for making money. For example, we have sabudana being grown in Salem in Tamil Nadu, where no body eats sabudana. All of it is exported to places like Gujrat and Maharashtra. You have basmati rice being grown in Punjab, which is not a rice eating part of the world at all. This is tremendous drain on the resources. I think we need to encourage a greater awareness about being more mindful and having an understanding about what you are putting in your body. At the end of the day food is the only foreign object you put in your body; that too willingly and twice or thrice a day! So, it is important that you pay attention to it. Cooking is an essential life skill because at the end of the day, the business of restaurants or the commercial supply chain or processed food industry is not sustainable because it has high carbon footprint and does not use local ingredients. It is salty, sugary and uses tons of preservatives to make food tasty and addictive. Let’s face it that at the end of the day, they have a business to run!

How would you convince the parents who believe that it is not a man’s job to cook to allow their boys to learn cooking?
Cooking is the basic of science. In schools, I think we should have a cooking lab next to all those sciences laboratories. In fact, my editor (who was from humanities background) said that if the science is anything harder than class VIII or IX, this book won’t sell. So, she told me to explain all the science behind processes like heating the oil, browning the onions or making curd in simple words. The book is doing so well that I am actually now getting requests from schools. In fact, I am going to be soon doing a demonstration in my son’s school (who is in class 3), along with the physics, chemistry and biology teachers. It is one thing to read about things like structure of a grain or its epidermis and another thing to see it in action in a wheat or a rice grain in a cooking laboratory. You could explain albumin or yolk in an egg, structure of a muscle or anything using the kitchen as a laboratory. So, all I have to say is that beakers and test tubes are all okay but seventy percent of the science practicals in a high school syllabus can happen in a kitchen because that is the place where biology, chemistry and physics intersect. You can explain thermodynamics of heat, you can explain basic chemical reactions, salt, acid, bases. You can explain the defence mechanisms of plants through spices! So, if we help parents of all those boys to understand that kitchen is the basis for their child’s education, then no one will have a problem in letting their boys learn cooking.
These days many children don’t like to participate in household chores! What can be done?
One thing that I have learnt from the west is that their relationships are about love but they are also transaction and negotiation based. The parents tell their children that they will give them the money but they need to do the chores first. They can play the videogames but they need to also do the laundry or clean up the kitchen. I think it is important that children should take part and participate in the household chores. Like my son has to put the clothes in washing machine and wash them. It is easy. He simply puts them and presses the right buttons. You need to ensure that your children do their bit in the household chores but these chores should not decide on the basis of gender. These days people send their daughter for helping with the car repair and son to help with the kitchen work.
But if every one will learn all the secrets of cooking, how will a woman reach a man’s heart? After all, the way is only through the stomach!

With all the apologies, if the only way to man’s heart is through the stomach then the man might as well learn cooking!

This article appeared in Rashtradoot’s Arbit section on March 1, 2021.


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