An astrologer had once said that the stars had bestowed me with great culinary skills. The astrologer had failed to see that I’d find making meals tedious. I’d often recline on the sofa between dishes and reflect on how men are more suited to the slicing and dicing of vegetables on account of their strength.
As a new wife in America in the late 80s, I noticed that men gravitated towards the kitchen with almost as much pleasure as their wives. They, too, enjoyed cooking meals. They were inclined to be true partners in the kitchen. One husband I knew cooked dinner every night while his wife went to evening classes to earn a degree. He confided to us that he occasionally served Trader Joe’s ready-to-heat curries to his unsuspecting wife, who raved over his masterpieces.
Growing up in India in the 70s, the only men I’d witnessed in the kitchen were cooks, caterers, and servants; not husbands. My paternal aunt in India declared once that she felt awful whenever her husband entered the kitchen. I was acutely disappointed to hear those words from her, a woman who was a school principal at a time when women rarely worked.
The fathers I knew only appeared in the kitchen when hunger pangs took them there. My own father was too preoccupied with work to step into what was considered a woman’s domain. I doubt whether he even knew how to cook rice, the staple he grew up on. He didn’t live in our Canadian kitchen the way the rest of the family did, to chat, talk on the phone, read, or play games. He came into the room only to eat or to fetch a tray of drinks to distribute at our house parties.
There is one man who is an exception when it comes to cooking in the kitchen. He is my maternal aunt’s husband. He could have been a surgeon, but fate had other plans for him and he ended up immigrating to America and becoming a professor. The hands that should have wielded knives in an operating room instead brandished kitchen knives and other utensils at home. He was in his element when he was stir-frying or doing some other culinary task. Cooking became a passion for him.
My uncle made himself at home in my kitchen whenever he visited. He located utensils and ingredients with ease, though often after each of his appearances I’d have to search for a misplaced item. He made up for this little inconvenience with his sumptuous creations.
I remember an occasion when my uncle and aunt drove hundreds of miles to my place to cook for me. One morning I woke up to the aroma of puttu, a rice flour confection laced with coconut strands. I could hardly restrain myself from running downstairs in my pajamas and pigging out on the food that my uncle had prepared. When I finally feasted on the rice flour, I felt certain my unborn baby would be a fan of my uncle’s cooking forever.
For my son’s second birthday, my uncle cooked appetizers and dishes for fifty guests. He was swifter than I was with the cake, and the results were equally miraculous. The pakodas he served quickly disappeared as our friends discovered how delicious they were. Guests plotted their way to the trays of fritters made from an array of vegetables: cauliflower, potato, eggplant, onion, and zucchini. “Eat, eat,” he’d say, as if the guests needed encouraging. By the time the party was over, everyone was ready to adopt my uncle and aunt as their own.
There are still places where kitchen chauvinism lingers. My Korean friend claims that Japanese women love Korean soap operas because Korean husbands help their wives out in the kitchen in these television dramas. In fact. she has a rank order: Chinese husbands help the most, followed by Korean husbands, and then Japanese husbands, if at all! I can vouch for one Chinese-American man, the spouse of a close friend. He used to devour copies of Good Housekeeping to try out recipes and now that he has, sadly, passed away, the conversation I had with him about making idlis remains one of my most vivid memories of him.
Modern times have ushered in modern husbands. My paternal aunt’s youngest daughter married a man who ran a catering service, but, adjust as my aunt did to a different era, what would she have thought of the men in my Pakistani neighbor’s family? They bear no trace of chauvinism and willingly contribute in the kitchen. The grandfather lovingly serves his wife, the dermatologist husband quietly prepares meals for his professor wife when their cook is away, and the son idolizes his sister as a goddess, for whom he would undoubtedly be happy to slice, dice, and stir.
When I went to India, I noticed that traditional male attitudes toward cooking were eroding. Men often slipped into the kitchen behind their womenfolk to return with food. Only a few husbands looked complacent, perched in armchairs and divans. Perhaps the dwindling supply of servants in Kerala has forced some men to share the responsibility of meal-making.
I’m sure my uncle’s mother never imagined her son would be feted for his cooking. I’m also positive his wife, accomplished cook that she is, never imagined she’d marry a man who’d outperform her in the kitchen. If more men like my uncle discovered what their hands were capable of in the kitchen, their lives would be transformed into a gastronomic heaven. Husbands and wives would have fun together and appreciate each other’s edible offerings.
Before I became a mother, I braved a fierce snowstorm with my husband and mother to visit my uncle and aunt in Seneca Falls, birthplace of the suffragette movement. We were rewarded for the long drive in the inclement weather. My uncle served fabulous home-cooked meals for the duration of our visit. For one meal, he whipped up onion yogurt chutney in the blender to go with uttapams in the space of five minutes. I knew I had to have the recipe of the chutney. Now I often make onion chutney not just for uttapams, but also for dosas, idlis, upma, and aloo parathas. I use the leftover as a dip. My husband makes it too.
For those who would love to whip up something in a cinch, here is the recipe for onion yoghurt chutney:
Onion Yoghurt Chutney
2 tablespoons chopped onion
2 tablespoons chopped coriander
2 cups of yogurt
1 green chili, seeded (optional)
Put all the ingredients in the blender and use the highest setting for a minute and a half or until a few bubbles appear. After five minutes, the dish is ready to serve.
Tara Menon is a freelance writer based in Lexington, Massachusetts. Her fiction, poetry, and book reviews have been published in many magazines.