Cooking for an entire family is a woman's work. But doing the same task for money is a man's work? Have you ever given thought to why most of the chefs in India are male? Why is the kitchen a place to confine women but empower men?
I must have been in grade 5 when a debate ensued in our English class. A simple discussion during the class led to a full-blown ‘girls versus boys banter’. The fight pivoted on who was a better cook, men or women. Team girls indeed seemed to win by backing their argument with ‘maa ke haath ka khana’ and how mothers were the ones who prepared their perfect box of lunch. Even our teacher was on the girls’ side, with her inputs flowing jauntily.
“Then why are all the chefs in five-star hotels, male?” said one of the boys.
And look, “how the turn tables” (The Office reference). This one question was enough to shut everyone down. The kid who raised the point beamed proudly at the teacher, who stood there with a blank expression. I waited for her to say something. However, she could not help but nod her head. I felt dismayed as I had no comeback or answer for the same. All the other boys’ faces were marked with triumphant smiles with this unopposed win.
But was this actually a win? I don’t think so.
Since that day, the question has been etched on my memory and kept popping up every now and then. I could not decipher the political nature of it for a long time until I was introduced to something called gender roles and how we live in a patriarchal society. The kid who asked the question might not even know how patriarchy was so deep-rooted in his small query.
As kids, we mimicked what we saw and what society showed us. Mothers stay at home; fathers go to work. Mothers raise children; fathers go to work. Mothers cook in the kitchen, and fathers still go to work. The banter that day, our teacher’s inability to answer, and the idea of us versus them being the product of what our society has clearly demarcated roles meant for men and women.
As far as the question was concerned, the answer was right in front of my eyes. Why are all good chefs male? Because any space that lies outside of the confined domesticity is a male’s arena.
Cooking, a predominantly domestic task meant for women, becomes a bread-winning task the moment it steps out of the house. The opportunity to make a career out of it was reserved for men, whereas women struggled for basic school education.
I grew up watching my Nani cook every single day. With her kitchen slab lined with a rainbow of spices, I saw her putting all her love into a basic sabzi. When I started cooking, I highly resonated with the feeling, and the ‘kitchen’ became my zen zone. Having been cooking for quite some time, my perspective on this domestic space developed another layer.
Sisterhood in kitchen
From watching my nani prepare dal-baati-choorma to trading recipes with my mom, I started seeing the kitchen as a space that also inculcated sisterhood. Millions of women out there share this collective experience. How wonderful it would be if we could just seize this opportunity and connect to each other with our trademark recipes.
However, with the developing sisterhood, there is also a need to dismantle cooking as a gender-specific role and rather establish it as a basic necessity, a skill everyone should know for survival. The kitchen should not be an oppressive space to entangle women but instead a space to connect, recollect and practice their art. At the end of the day, the narrative should not be about how the prince saved the princess but how they both fought the monster together.
Views expressed are the author's own.
Anjali Agarwal is an Editor at Ladder Media.
Suggested Reading: Shararat & Sisterhood: How Indian Sitcom Set Benchmark Around Women’s Bonds