During the extended period of the Covid-19 lockdown in India last year, the social media was flooded with images of food. Each photograph outdid the other. Women, across India experimented with ingredients in their kitchens. They cooked with a never-before frenzy.
Friends confessed to challenging themselves each day and the results were gourmet thrillers.
It was also a period when a sizeable number of women lost their jobs and along with it a carefully carved out identity. In a patriarchal society like India, cooking is by and large considered a woman’s job. It is something that every household takes seriously. Though lately, many Indian men have started snubbing their noses at this nugget of patriarchy and are cooking the family’s meals. However, this is a miniscule population.
Though restaurants are popular across India, it is the home-cooked meal that is a hands-down winner. Families who order out food or eat out regularly continue to be frowned upon. Indian women take pride in our abilities to turn out a balanced diet, meal after meal. Ours is also a country which has a strong “tiffin culture”.
Working Indians carry their home-cooked meals in tiffin boxes to their offices. Though, many offices have in-house canteens that supply food to its employees, it is always the home-cooked meal which enjoys the upper hand. Again, those who do not carry tiffin boxes to work are frowned upon.
The lockdown seemed to be the glorious period for home chefs. It saw the birth of numerous food entrepreneurs, particularly bakers and confectioners, who operated out of their kitchens at home. They mixed and matched ingredients to turn out delicious foods which tickled the palate. Microwave ovens, Oven-Toast-Grillers (OTG), Roti makers, Soup makers and blenders flew off the shelves. The ingredients which recorded maximum sale during the lockdown period were Rawa (Semolina), Maida (all-purpose flour) and Besan (gram flour), which is a base for a lot of Indian gourmet food.
A friend who started a catering business during the lockdown said that she did it to “keep her sanity”. A management graduate, she had to give up her career to be a stay-at-home mom.
According to her, cooking gave her a sense of power because she could be creative. In fact, for most Indian women cooking is a form of empowerment. The kitchen is their “queendom” where they can create the best.
So when India went into lockdown, it unleashed a phase of “kitchen creativity”. Facebook and Instagram became the media to showcase their work. Plating and presentation of the food took on a new dimension. As the tastes of the households changed, the challenges got bigger.
I called a friend on her birthday and was tickled pink when she told me that she was cooking Mexican food! She had never tried it before. From a variety of starters, main course to desserts everything was Mexican. The lockdown was a period when ingredients could not be sourced very easily, but somehow she had managed to do it.
To my query on the reason for her to be wrestling with the heat and a mountain of ingredients in the kitchen on her birthday, her reply was that she wanted to show her family that she could create any cuisine if she set her mind to it. The flip-side of this “food adventurism” is that the family now expects a “gourmet thriller” every day. She confessed to be mentally fatigued post-lockdown and is done with kitchen creativity.
There is an unique relationship between Indian women and their kitchens. It is the place where we begin our day and end our day. From the morning cup of tea to the last meal of the day, everything is closely monitored. Irrespective of our working status, kitchen management is an important part of our daily routine.
A friend who works with women “with stressed minds” says that she recommends cooking as a therapy. Cleaning leafy vegetables, peeling garlic and cutting vegetables into different shapes are other exercises she recommends. She tells them to move out of the framework of their routine cooking and “create something different everyday”. She claims that in many cases these exercises have acted as stress busters. Probably, having to stay within the confines of their houses with no domestic help during the lockdown, women turned to cooking as a stress buster.
Interestingly, now that the lockdown has been lifted across India, many of the home chefs I know say that they are “burnt-out”. The same food which they enjoyed cooking in the lockdown is now drudgery to them.