COME home sometime," says Aalok Wadhwa, 35, GM, South Asia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, "and I'll make some good Thai." His wife echoes the invitation but promptly dissociates herself from any role in the kitchen. Who says big boys don't fry? If there's any argument over the sexual politics of cooking, read an instructive tome by the name of A Picture Treasury of Barbequing. It reassures men that it's okay to cook. Indeed, male-directed incineration of animal flesh has a proud lineage that goes back to caveman days. A potency reassured as the Bringer of Meat.
That's how at least Capt. (retd) Ajay Bhonsle learnt to cook. Literally. At shikars. Says this 59-year-old Bangalore-based scion of the royal family of Sawanthwadi: "Being royal meant we went on shikars and that's where I picked up my first taste for cooking." And from grilling freshly slaughtered meat on a camp fire, Bhonsle moved on to the microwave and gas stove, perfecting techniques of sautéing, simmering and sizzling. Like the increasing number of urban men today who've discovered a new passion—Cooking.
Take Niladri Paul, 36, a Delhi-based artist, who's the cook in the house and an expert in a whole range of cuisine—from Mughlai to Mediterranean. Cook? "He's Master Chef, I'm just his assistant," his wife Nirupama asserts with pride. Paul cooks right through from breakfast to dinner. "When I'm working I can't do much, but dinner is a must," says he. Nirupama's relief shows through. "Left to myself even dry bread would do," she says.
Ask Sanjoy Roy, host of two cookery shows on Doordarshan and a prolific cook himself, and he'll tell you that nuclear families have ushered in this change. Earlier,the kitchen was the woman's domain and there were no two ways about it. Now, there's more freedom, no one to say 'poor baby, doesn't your wife cook at all?' and leave you wondering whether it's manly to cook. "Gender roles are fusing on all fronts and it's a great role model for the kids," adds Roy, a father of two boys. Cooking for men today is probably akin to playing a round of golf with the boys over the weekend. The grill is the perfect '90s place to bond. Symbol of the perfect cosmopolitan man, a subject for perfect party conversation implying 'man, you've arrived', opines Roy. Agrees Dileep Padgaonkar, executive managing editor, Times of India: "One reason why the younger generation is taking to cooking is that it's yet another way of proving one's manhood—poaching on women's territory and excelling there." Padgaonkar's interest in whipping up varied cuisines is as much sensual as it's scholarly. And when he's not cooking himself, he's instructing the domestic help. "That's another reason," says Wadhwa. "Here you've people to help you. I'd hate to do all the shopping and chopping. It's a kind of 'artist-at-work' situation. For, particular to male cooking, is vanity." An ego booster when it creates a minor flurry—"You can cook? Wow."
For some it's a necessity. As students or bachelors living away from home, eating out daily is not an attractive proposition. So men learn to cook, begin liking it, experiment and innovate and once married, they slip easily into the role of breadmaker.
For others it's a challenge. An extension of the workplace into the kitchen in their desire to be perfectionists. Says Debapriya Dam, 35, senior production manager at Ammiratis Puris Lintas: "In my profession, I get many chances to correct any flaws in the printing process.But cooking needs real concentration—I have to get all mixes and matches right first time round."
His wife Shalini is representative of all women whose men cook and who want their men to cook. Very much a '90s professional for whom cooking is a chore rather than a means of showing off one's talents, Shalini has no problems with the fact that her husband is also the chef. "Cooking is hard work and if men like it, it's damn good," she says. But, she adds. "It's still a novelty and men cook only fancy stuff. Women have to go through the daily grind." An observation borne out by what Mumbai-based executive Jamal Sheikh says. "My wife takes care of the daily cooking. I step in when there are visitors because large numbers makes my wife nervous."
Agrees Sunam Sarkar, 33, GM, Convenience and Business Unit, Modi Xerox, whose forte is continental cuisine. "Continental is easy to put together and not messy." Sarkar admits if he had to cook every single day, he'd do so but not dal-chawal stuff. "I'd put together fun meals, like elaborate sandwiches, interesting soups or quiches." His wife Vasavadatta's comment: "As long as there's food on the table I don't care who's cooked it. As long as it's not me," reflecting the changing equation. In fact, an increasing number of women refuse to cook, forcing the men to don fancy aprons.
Sarkar's among a tribe of the new generation professionals who travel abroad frequently, pick up new tastes, titillating flavours, shop for exotic ingredients and once back home replicate those flavours in their kitchens. Padgaonkar recalls how earlier it used to be a nightmare putting even a special salad together. But now everything—from herbs to salad dressings, from different cheeses to exotic vegetables—is freely available in India. "In the past 10 years," says Padgaonkar, "food has been receiving serious attention in India, both in the media as well as in the proliferation of speciality restaurants." Perhaps another reason why men are drawn towards what they now see as an 'art form'.
Which is why cooking for men is more about exotica than the mundane. Like Sarkar, others too avoid the daily food indigenous to Indian homes. Their repertory instead comprises in more cases than one French, Mediterranean and South Asian, with barbeques topping beginners' repertoire. If it's Indian then it's the more complicated Mughlai or the trendy Goan.
Most men agree that it could be due to their subconscious desire for ceremony and the need to impress. A little order, a little protocol, a little formality is a sign of civility—the trouble taken to have the right crockery and cutlery, so important, particularly in western cuisine, is like taking a deep and gracious bow to the art of eating. A romance waiting to be discovered, a conquest complete when their guests go back sated. "I feel like shit when my cooking isn't appreciated," admits Wadhwa.
Also, men find that cooking ultimately relaxes them. Says Sarkar: "I cook when I need to think about something or am depressed. It's a great stress-reliever." For others it's a form of meditation, a way to let off steam and have fun. "There's a lot of pleasure in feeding others, a sense of nurturing," says Roy, who feels the kitchen fina-lly is your very own fiefdom, your own space. Specially so, when none of their wives evince any interest in 'slaving' away over a fire.
So, whether it's helping around the house, relaxing, being creative or just a game of oneupmanship, for these men presenting a meal in its entirety, in these mad, whirlwind times could just be another way of expressing myriad pent-up emotions and desires. That's why Dam uses printing technology as his culinary yardstick. Sarkar from Xerox tries out his dishes over and over again till he gets them perfect each time. Both Roy and Paul, artists in their own fields, are obsessive about the way food is presented. "Food should look beautiful and taste delicious. And if you could have sound, Tchaikovsky with prawns would be the ultimate," says Roy. And Padgaonkar's desire for scholastics drives him to read up on the history of food before the sensual takes over and makes him compare good food with Marlene Dietrich and Ingrid Bergman—expressive yet subtle.
Writer Upamanyu Chatterjee, however, takes it all with a pinch of salt. He sees no creativity or romance in cooking. "I cook to avoid the bad cooking domestic help dish out. It's easier to open a cookbook than suffer bad food." But the '90s woman is only too glad to sit down to a readymade meal once through with netsurf-ing. If men want to play with fire, they are welcome. Sure, it takes more time to get the fire going, but it's part of the evolutionary cycle—with Man going hunting, bringing back the bacon and grilling it in the backyard. Big boys do fry and they're getting better each time.
With B.R. Srikanth in Bangalore and Shameem Akhtar in Mumbai