Growing up, though I had no interest in cooking, whenever a scene around the dining table came in movies, I used to peep into their plates.

In the movie, Newton, a civil servant on election duty in an Adivasi village of Chhattisgarh, on seeing a man crunching  red ants  asks a native, “can these be eaten?” and she replies pungently, that it is ridiculous that he never knew about red ant chutney, even when he lived only some kilometers apart.  Red ant chutney is a remedy for malaria. 

Never having enough oil and other spices, the Dalit preservation techniques of pork and beef are unique. Forced to live in deprivation, nothing could be afforded to be classified as waste.  Rakthi or coagulated blood, intestine, rat, beef and pork are all cooked. These recipes taste the dignity of survival. Even when we get to see Dalits and Adivasis in movies, their food is regarded as taboo or worse censored.

Once after reading that, Dalits used to store watermelon seeds and grounded them to thicken the curry, I asked grandmother, if we also did the same. She replied. “Old times, when hunger and scarcity was everywhere, in every jackfruit season we used to boil and dry the jackfruit seeds. When food was scarce, men and kids used to eat the boiled seeds, and women, the boiled peels of jackfruit”.

Vijayan Kanampilly, in his Essential kerala cookbook gives a comprehensive history of  Kerala cuisine and how each community’s beliefs and occasions gave birth to various recipes, thereby diversifying the Kerala cuisine. He also mentions the hegemony of Nair – Namboodiri cooking style as the “authentic” Kerala cuisine. He tells the history of the entry of tapioca in 1880-1885 from Latin America through Africa.  To survive famine, tapioca cultivation was ordered by the Maharaja. Kannampilly gives an insight into the Kerala utensils, how they evolved from stone, earth and to metals. And how the evolution of the utensils affected the recipes. An interesting example is the Puttu Kutti. HowPuttu was made in Cheratta (coconut shell) and bamboo stick, covered with coir thread to prevent  the expansion and cracking of the bamboo,  and later how metallic Puttu Kutti took the place.

We are not only hesitant to celebrate the diversity of cuisines; we tend to even trivialize cooking itself. For me cooking was a daily skill, but after watching the documentary “Cooked”, cooking became an essential store of human knowledge.  And of all the knowledge, the knowledge of preservation and fermentation amuse me the most.

It was the knowledge of fire, agriculture, wheel and writing that made us human. The knowledge of fire relieved us from the burden of chewing for hours and thus our jaws became smaller and the brain bigger.  When the knowledge of driving and writing is taken with enthusiasm, cooking is often stereotyped for women.  But when cooking is done outside the premise of domestic household, men are eager to take it up.

 “The less time we cook, the more time we watch  other people cook”, because cooking is an integral human experience that we cannot completely do away with, saysMicheal Pollan in the documentary, “Cooked”.  When women and men argued over who will do the cooking, food industries jumped in between and took the role of saviour. They convinced us that cooking is time consuming and messy. They came with efficient ways of cooking with packed food items. They least care about our health or the biodiversity. No harm in being the prophet of efficiency and true, cooking is all chopping and scrubbing. But the question is efficiency at the cost of what.

“Trapped in the four walls of the kitchen”, that is the clichéd phrase of women empowerment stories. But is the kitchen truly an isolated universe? I think, there is no room in our households other than the kitchen which absorbs the highest, the changes of the outside world. Our changing aspirations and tastes can be seen bottled in the shelves of the kitchen. From when did our kitchen start to have ketchups and sauces? Our utensils and appliances keep advancing according to the times. My grandmother asks, “when did onion become our base of cooking, we never had onions. We cooked with coconut and shallots”. Our economical and political ties reflect in our kitchen space. Food industries now and then endorse an all saving super food. Avocado and Aloe Vera are currently hitting that list.  Once coconut oil suffered a bad reputation, recently coconut oil is being revived.

Shalini Arya

Recently the Food scientist, Shalini Arya won awards and international recognition for designing a healthier cheap chapatti. She replaced the wheat flour with other cheap and more nutritious locally grown grains in the chapatti recipe. She said, growing up malnourished in a slum and cooking for the whole family from a young age itself, she did not intend to choose a career which is connected with food. But her father prompted her to study Food Science. Though she enrolled reluctantly, she credits her invention, to her first hand understanding of malnourishment and how poor kitchens work. The stringed burden of the kitchen on women alone discourages girls from appreciating the knowledge of cooking. 

Kitchen spaces suffer from the superfluous glorification of feminineness attached to it. Equally does it suffer from the efficiency and women empowerment propaganda of food industries. The kitchen is one field of humanity where various knowledge comes together to enhance the cooking. There is certainly a middle ground for cooking, where it does not become a fancy or a mundane chore. And maybe, it is easily achievable when we meditatively chew and digest well, that cooking is an essential human knowledge and experience.


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