By Shivani Mohan
I was 17 when I packed my bags and set forth to join a catering college. A glamorous and promising career in hotels beckoned. Life would never be the same again. Though it was a different matter that I was just going about 275 km away from Chandigarh to Delhi but my family huddled together to give me some ‘gyaan’ (wisdom), gifts and goodies besides a tearful farewell as if I was crossing the seven seas, never to return.
Like a typical teenager I was itching to forsake the comfortable cocoon of my home and take wings to explore a new world.
As I merrily put the haversack of adventure and freedom on my shoulders, my full blooded Punjabi grandmother told me, “Puttar, listen you are old enough to know these things. You may fall in love but be sure to marry a Punjabi, a Brahmin, preferably a Sharma (our family name).”
My mother, closer to my generation and a little more open to cross cultural marriages, took me aside to a different room and said, “It is okay if you start liking someone from your profession and decide to marry someone from a different community. Just marry a man who truly loves you but, but please don’t marry a chef.” She did not mean it as an insult to any profession but was simply airing her heart felt views.
Back in those days Indians were still quite fixated with the doctor-engineer-lawyer bit. Sanjeev Kapoor had barely risen on the celebrity chef horizon. Pampered sons were not expected to do mundane female stuff like cooking. To my mother’s mind, a son-in-law who would enter the kitchen, don a funny cap and cook was as an alarming proposition.
Meanwhile my father, who is a person not given to expressing too much emotion wryly said, “Ladies, I think she is going away for higher studies. And here you are advising her on marriage and love. Are you in your senses?” My father, of course, loved me dearly and felt his daughter could do no wrong. If he had his way, his daughter would have nothing to do with the opposite sex, ever, and I mean it in the best possible way.
Catering college was exciting. Besides many other management related subjects we had practical classes in cooking called ‘food production’ and ‘patisserie’ twice a week. Dressed in crisp white chef coats and caps, we learnt the intricacies of various cuisines of the world. We roughed it out, peeling piles of onions teary eyed, chopping potatoes, beating eggs till stiff and white. Apart from the fact that we had to be on our toes for prolonged hours-we were getting ready for the industry, no chairs were provided to sit anywhere-those practicals were sheer fun.
If a recipe entailed use of just egg whites, someone at the back would collect all the egg yolks and make a massive cheese omelet for a snack. A simple task of rolling out perfect round chapattis with someone we fancied was like the ultimate dream date.
I remember that the entire process of getting down messy and sweating out in those kitchens changed the way in which we interacted with the opposite sex. For one the girls couldn’t look very lady-like in that garb. Devoid of any make-up and typical feminine trappings, we secured friendships based on a common ground and a comfortable camaraderie. The paradox was heightened by the fact that even though cooking at domestic fronts was a female activity, for some strange reason, it was men who excelled in those classes and later as chefs in hotels.
Also my generation of Indian women grew up watching those all American sitcoms where men would plan elaborate meals for their lady love and even offer to do the dishes. Imagine a hunk who opens the door to his house and heart with an apron on- an irresistible scene indeed for any woman. But most Indian men do not want to comply on this front. They have been pampered all their lives by indulging mothers and, therefore, they feel they can’t be seen doing mundane things such as rustling up a meal.
I am talking about the average Indian male. So even though I never planned it that way, it so happened that many years later I ended up marrying a Punjabi, a Brahmin, a man who loved me truly and a non-cook. Early on in our marriage, someday when I would be really tired or bored of cooking alone, I would broach this topic gingerly.
“You know it was always my dream that my man should cook something for me once in a while and pamper me.”
His reply would be, “I have never ever cooked. I have never seen my father do it. So how can I?”
“Surely you have moved on to many things your father didn’t do. Going for regular pedicures to begin with. Having more skincare products on your shelf than me. If you are ready to experiment and try new things in other aspects of life, why not this?”
“Listen don’t expect me to cook. I can employ as many people to cook for you as you want but don’t expect me.”
This is where the waters would start getting a bit troubled.
“I went to a college where every guy there knew how to cook. In fact, many of them are world class chefs today. And then I had to marry you.”
“Well, I seriously doubt if they actually get down to cooking for their wives.”
At this point I would walk out of the room in a huff and sulkily cook an extra elaborate meal just to make him feel guilty. He would nonchalantly gulp down all of it without the slightest bit of remorse.
I have made some headway since. It so happened that a couple who are our good friends, Raj and Rhea invited us for dinner once. Rhea was a picture of cool relaxedness as Raj had donned the chef’s cap that day. He had set up a smoldering barbecue in his lawn that he handled adeptly. Women circled him, cooing and swooning over his produce and asking him for the marinade recipes. The expression on most men’s faces that day clearly spelt ‘what does he have that I don’t?’ In between Raj asked me whether I would like some chicken or lamb. I just fluttered my eyelashes, smiling at his wife and said, “I’ll have whatever Rhea has!”
My husband soon learnt how to make a good barbecue. So men, get over this hang up, and let the woman in your life feel special. Cook her a nice intimate meal. Even a cold coffee and sandwich would do. That would be the beginning of an interesting new dimension to your relationship. Better still, cook together or do anything fun and creative together. More than anything it is the pleasure of laboriously creating something unique and exclusive together and sharing some quality time.
- Shivani Mohan is an India-based writer and corporate communication consultant. This article first appeared in Khaleej Times