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The dilemma of celebrating men who cook

There is no question that men must step into the kitchen. But regarding them as exceptional is unfair to women who do it without fuss

Indian men must learn to cook for many reasons: social, economic and moral. (Istockphoto)
Indian men must learn to cook for many reasons: social, economic and moral. (Istockphoto) (iStockphoto)

With MIT professor Abhijit Banerjee’s book promotions running full steam, lucky food critics get to write about how a Nobel laureate cooked a meal for them. Well, he cooked for me too, when he kindly invited me for dinner last year. I can vouch for not just his wide culinary oeuvre but the fact that he juggles being a host and home chef with great ease and does everything himself, from shopping to chopping to cooking to serving. What I did not ever think of saying was that his wife and fellow Nobel laureate Esther Duflo was a lucky woman. I raise this issue because it is a comment that men who cook often hear, as I have, much to my wife’s chagrin—and to mine.

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Now, I am no Banerjee, either in terms of intellectual or culinary accomplishments, but since I am a man who cooks, I occupy, in some ways, the same contentious universe and am involved in the same debates around men who can do more than make morning tea.

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The day after Lounge published a cover story on, and interview with, Banerjee earlier this month, a woman bureaucrat on my Twitter timeline gently pointed out that it was very good that people like Banerjee and Halarnkar cooked and wrote about their adventures but do think of the women who cook every day without attention or acclaim.

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That is an excellent point. I have often been conflicted about this column and felt guilty about the mild recognition I receive now and then at malls and book stores. When my book released in 2013, I did a round of promotions and at every event, the your-wife-is-so-lucky comment was ubiquitous.

I have previously argued that Indian men must learn to cook for many reasons: social, economic and moral. The Indian woman can no longer be allowed to bear the burden of household work because it is not just holding her back but holding India back. Indian men do far less housework than men of almost all nationalities, a statistic that obviously gets little attention in a country where a smug middle class is inclined to ignore inconvenient facts.

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My contention is that the key to making men cook is to get sons into the kitchen, which isn’t easy of course given the legion of coddled, kitchen- and housework-illiterate males produced by Indian society. “Sons always were—and continue to be—willing victims of the mera-raja-beta (my precious son) syndrome, which manifests itself in doting mothers who indulgently serve their sons and adoringly watch them eat,” I once wrote. “Once pampered thus, the Indian male not only expects to be served but also prides himself in his ignorance around the kitchen.”

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So, yes, it is good to celebrate the exceptions—as I suppose men like Banerjee and I are—but to accord us recognition because we do what billions of women do every day without fuss is definitely and extensively ironic and unfair.

I do recognise my privilege, yet I must admit that I exploit it. I cannot particularly help this because my column, dear reader, is also my livelihood. What men like me can do is perform our household chores with the minimum of fuss, which is what I hope to do more substantially than before.

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This week, reminded of my need to do more mundane work, I spent more time chopping and cleaning, for which I often have domestic help. I also cooked more mundane entrées, focusing on what was at hand and on comfort food, greatly required this week because the wife was unwell and craved it.

Since my mother-in-law was with us, I tried making Sindhi comfort food, the Seyal Double that you can read about below, the “double” a reference to “double roti” or bread. I have made a version of this previously, involving chicken, which led some readers to point out that I could not do without involving animals, could I?

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Well, here’s evidence to the contrary. As for the end product, my mother-in-law said it was “good” and then explained Seyal Double was something made not by Shikarpuris—which is what they are—but Hyderabadis, a reference to the way Sindhis classify themselves, by their origins in modern-day Pakistan. Next time, I will stick to dal.

SEYAL DOUBLE

Serves 4

Ingredients

3 slices stale bread, each torn into four

1 bunch methi (fenugreek), chopped

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 large tomatoes, puréed

1 red and 1 green chilli, chopped

1 bunch coriander, chopped

2 tbsp fresh garlic and ginger, finely chopped

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2 tbsp thick tamarind water

1-2 mugs hot water

2 tsp oil

Salt to taste

Method

Heat oil in a non-stick wok. Sauté the chillies for 30 seconds. Add ginger and garlic and sauté for another 30 seconds. Add onion and sauté until it starts to brown. Add methi and coriander and mix well. Cover and cook on low flame for five minutes. Open, add tomato purée, salt and tamarind water. Stir and add hot water. Make sure there is enough water for the bread to absorb but not so much that it becomes slimy. Stir in the bread. Cover and cook for five minutes. Serve hot.

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Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.

@samar11

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