By Mehak Siddiqui
Illustration by Yaansoon
“You should learn how to cook”.
I was just around twelve or thirteen when I first began hearing this.
It started off as a playful suggestion from my mother and grandmother, like it could be an exciting summer vacation project. But when I didn’t really heed it, year after year, the voices began to multiply and grow increasingly incessant, impatient, pleading, and even shameful.
By the time I was around fifteen or sixteen, I’d learned how to fry an egg, make instant noodles, and brew chai, the spiced milk tea that’s an everyday ritual in my household. And over fifteen years later, those are still the only three things I’m most confident crafting in the kitchen.
I realize in retrospect that my resistance to cooking has stemmed from a mixture of fear and rebellion. During adolescence, learning to cook was synonymous with the whole ‘becoming a woman’ rite of passage that was already wreaking havoc on my life and body.
Growing up was confusing and stressful, and — even though I didn’t have the vocabulary to express it at the time — fundamentally unfair in how it translated to more and more gendered notions about propriety.
I was just a teenager but had already heard one too many a sexist old adage like how ‘men make houses, women make homes’, and how ‘a way to man’s heart is through his stomach’. Or sexist husband-and-wife style jokes shared openly — often repetitively — at family gatherings, even in front of children.
Right from a young age, I found it hard to miss how the woman is always the butt end of the joke in this style of so-called ‘wisecracks’, whether it was about her looks or lack thereof, her wits or lack thereof, her ambitions or lack thereof, her children or lack thereof, or of course, her cooking skills or lack thereof.
Go to any house in my family, community, or even country (whether for an everyday meal or festive feast), and it’s guaranteed that you’ll find only female members of the family puttering about in the kitchen, frying samosas or pakoras, making chai, or loading up platters of food and drink. For come joy or grief, women need to ensure everyone is always fed, watered, and caffeinated.
To date when we have large sit-down dinners in my extended family, the men are served first while the women fuss around, replenishing servings, popping things in the microwave to reheat, asking if anything else is needed.
As a child, I never aspired to take on that role. I began associating cooking and homemade meals with domesticity and docility. I guess you can say that in my mind, food became synonymous with the patriarchy long before I ever understood what patriarchy meant.
And so I resisted learning how to cook, instead devoting all of my time to doing well at school and university, and then building a career. I realize that I am incredibly privileged to have had the choice to do this and to be able to question the age-old expectations that I’ve been ensnared with.
Although things are slowly changing and more people are rejecting sexist ways of being, there is much shame involved. Both men and women who transgress the divide between gender roles are perceived as ‘too much’: too out there, too modern, too disrespectful, too smart for their own good. This inherent culture of judgment is partly the reason why I’ve chosen to steer clear of matrimony too. To this day in my community, there are arranged marriages in which one of the first things a prospective bride is asked about, regardless of how accomplished she may otherwise be, is her skill in the kitchen.
The closest I’ve come to ‘learning how to cook’ was taking a baking class with my best friend back in the summer after we finished our O Levels. This remains one of my favourite memories: how we learned to accurately measure out ingredients, combine them with precise techniques, and then watch as the cake magically rose in the oven into soft aromatic goodness. I remember witnessing how the doughnuts browned beautifully in the right temperature of oil, and how the cookies solidified into just the right blend of crunchy and chewy.
I still have the recipes we learned back then, meticulously recorded on yellowing notebook paper in the roundish print that was my neatest handwriting. That first foray into baking translated into a passion that has led me to slowly discover how food is a love language and that preparing it from scratch — both for myself and others — can be a deeply rewarding and enjoyable experience rather than the monumental and monotonous chore that I’ve long perceived it as.
I feel a deep sense of awe and admiration for my mother, aunts, and all the other women I know who have devoted their lives to cooking. They have been stepping into the kitchen almost every day since they were children, initiated into the culinary arts by their own mothers and aunts and grandmothers.
These women have perfected recipes and techniques passed down through generations and invented some of their own tricks along the way. They’ve adapted and catered to the varied tastes of their husbands, children and in-laws, and learned to give new twists to old staples. They’ve experimented with ingredients, put leftovers to innovative uses, and expressed incredible creativity and fortitude without ever wanting or getting much credit for it.
They have patiently slow-cooked biryanis and kheer and rolled out hundreds upon hundreds of rotis, those gorgeous flatbreads that are as tedious to make as they are delicious to eat. They have rustled up something even when they’ve been feverish or cramping or pregnant, never once protesting. They’ve bonded over different ways of cooking the same dish and found joy in sharing magic ingredients.
They are a testament to how cooking and food brings people together and how, for that reason alone, everyone, regardless of gender, should indeed learn how to cook.