By Indu Balachandran/Deccan Herald
Bengaluru, February 20: “So what’s your favourite thing to make for dinner?” I recently asked my cousin Raju. “Reservations,” he replied promptly.
My peeved cousin was flinging away the charred remnants of Crème Brûlée ( which literally means ‘burnt cream’; only he’d reduced it to inedible cinders). Next time, swore Raju, he’d safely reserve a table at his favourite restaurant when I came visiting, rather than attempt something fancy himself.
“But there are way more famous men chefs than women, worldwide…” I reminded him, trying to cheer him up. I’d been researching and chatting up people for my gender-differences column so had readily accepted Raju’s offer to make me dinner.
“Men-chefs? To me, that’s like saying Men-mothers. I don’t think I’m biologically structured to cook” declared Raju, gloomily.
That set me off exploring basic cooking instincts in men and women. And here’s an interesting discovery: Back in Neanderthal times, when Swiggy was only a distant dream, men did all the grocery shopping. That is, go out, club an animal, drag it to the cave, and order the cavewife to toss it on a fire following a secret family recipe. After which he’d hog, take a nap, without clearing up any of the bones either.
Now according to some genetic experts, early man’s hunt for food helped develop a sharper sense of smell. This was honed by a primal hunting instinct that enabled men to ‘smell’ prey before chasing it and clobbering it for lunch. Centuries later this olfactory advantage showed up; apparently a vital characteristic in the making of a chef.
Incidentally, the word ‘chef’ itself comes from the word Chief—and there is evidence that in some ancient jungles, men assumed the dominant cooking role. I have made an erudite connection here: Cannibal Chiefs cooked up a better fine-dining experience out of a missionary boiling alive in a pot; rather than women—who were more hesitant about using human beings as ingredients. This leads to a compelling theory: Men are willing to take more risks than women— be it recklessly venturing into extra-marital affairs, or recklessly adding extra-marinades into food. This unrestrained spirit has resulted in innovations, weird but delicious combos, crazy fusion ideas, putting some guys ahead of gals when being interviewed for sous chef jobs.
So while we have millions of good women, also known as wives and mothers, slaving away in kitchens worldwide, famous for their time-tested rasam, khichidi or boondi ladoos, we also have hundreds of adventurous guys turning into Michelin chefs revered for their boeuf bourguignon, salmon en papillote and cassoulet.
There’s also this view ( usually expressed with eyes rolling upwards) by several gender watchers: Sure, men love cooking. Provided they’re paid for it. And to add to this, I’d like to share a fine quote tinged with sarcasm from the actress Sridevi. If you recall the film English Vinglish, her character Shashi had a profound observation: When men cook, it’s an art. When women cook, it’s their duty. (At this stage, it’s time for a disclaimer about glamorous women chefs like Nigella Lawson and Tarla Dalal and Madhur Jaffrey who became pretty rich and famous turning cooking into an art form, but I guess we understand the point Sridevi was trying to make).
Today, be they cannibal or vegan, man or woman, or anything in between, all will agree that in the Instagram age, food must not only taste good but win beauty pageants too. Even a basic bowl of dal first needs to be glamorised with a sexily twirled lime slice pirouetting on coriander leaves. Sandwiches must sit up in isosceles triangles like the Alps embellished with blood red zig zag lines. And it’s bad parenting if you serve idlis to your kids without making smiley faces on them first.
My rather ad hoc research methods also led to some interesting trivia you could casually mention at the next gourmet meal you are invited to. What do Daniel Craig and Akshay Kumar have in common? No, the right answer is not about doing their own stunts; but about their stints. Both were professionally trained chefs and waiters…before Hollywood and Bollywood nabbed them and turned them into action heroes.
Still, any guy cuisinier worth his Himalayan salt didn’t evolve by emulating cooks from the mens’ club. I have yet to see even our desi YouTube men-chef stars like Sanjeev Kapoor, Ranveer Brar, or Rakesh Raghunathan get misty eyed ( unless they’re cutting onions) over a secret recipe that their great grandfathers passed down to them; all these articulate personalities instead pay lavish tributes to their naani, dadi, paati or ammama at some point during a cooking demo.
Aha. So now we know which gender gets the true credit.
(After two humorous novels, the author’s next book is an illustrated story for kids releasing in 2022, called ‘My Grandmother Can’t Cook!’. Reach her at [email protected]).