I can’t cook. I’ve done everything from having the contents of my blender explode on me in the kitchen to burning something so badly that the smoke alarm went off. Instead, I heavily leech off of my family’s cooking because if it weren’t for them, my diet would consist only of Maggi noodles, the South Asian equivalent to instant ramen.
I’m lucky: I grew up eating my mother’s homemade Indian food every day, and I would get the opportunity to observe her in the kitchen working her magic. She would flip anything on the stove with her bare hands from tortillas to chapatis, you name it.
As a kid, I wanted to learn to cook like my mother, so I would do what I could to help. Granted, it wasn’t much, but sometimes I would cut a vegetable, mix a curry or add the spices. What I never noticed was my brothers helping out in the kitchen. They were always playing video games, watching YouTube videos or just sluggishly laying in bed. I didn’t mind though; the kitchen was emptier and allowed us to work more efficiently.
However, that drive to learn stopped one day. I couldn’t tell you at what exact age it was, but I do remember I was fairly young, most likely before my teenage years. I was helping my mother in the kitchen and without skipping a beat, she nonchalantly commented, “It’s good that you’re learning to cook early, that way you’ll find a husband easily once you’re older.” She chuckled afterward and kept preparing dinner like nothing was wrong. She didn’t even bat an eye toward me.
Her sarcastic tone made it seem like it wasn’t a comment she meant for me to take seriously. But even before I became, as I’ve been told, “an extreme feminazi,” that comment didn’t sit right with me. Since when did my ability to cook gauge how easily I’ll be able to find a husband? It didn’t add up for me.
My teenage years came around and I knew I needed to sharpen my skills in the kitchen since I did not want to rely on my mother to have food on the table. I told her I wanted to make the family dinner one day, and for her to teach me something simple. She taught me how to make a potato curry, which is a fairly simple dish, and she said that all I had to do was fry some potatoes on the stove and once they become crispy, add all of the spices necessary. Wanting to feel like an independent adult, I shooed my mother away from the kitchen to her room upstairs so I could work alone. When you’re harnessing a new skill, it’s normal to make mistakes, which is what happened when I accidentally burned the curry. The potatoes kept sticking to the bottom of the pan, and that’s when a wave of panic hit me. I forgot to add oil beforehand. I hopelessly added oil while the potatoes were cooking, fiddling with the knob on the stove, turning down the heat in hopes the potatoes would soften up and become easier to scrape off, but that made things worse. I started flailing my arms everywhere, spatula in hand, sweat drenching my forehead. My heart was racing at the thought of my mom coming downstairs and yelling at me for ruining dinner. After I finally managed to scrape off the potatoes, they were burnt to a crisp and pitch black in color. The whole house reeked of a smoky odor and the potato curry wasn’t edible, so I had to toss it. I was sad, of course, it felt like I ruined dinner. My mother wasn’t mad, though. She calmly looked over my shoulder and acted accordingly by whipping up some yogurt rice for dinner. Soothed by this comfort dish, I was starting to feel less upset until another snarky comment was made, this time from my father.
“Who’s going to marry you if you can’t even make potato curry?”
This also wasn’t a comment I was meant to take seriously, since my father smugly grinned whilst making that remark. But in the heat of that moment, it didn’t feel like a joke. The “feminazi” side of me kicked in as the comment cut me deep. I’m trying to learn a life skill and all these folks can think about is how much marriage material I am? They didn’t even bother teaching my brothers how to cook; instead, they just constantly heaped their plates with more food. With a burning sensation smoldering on my face, I angrily convinced myself that I should just stop learning how to cook since that seemed like the only way to escape comments like these.
I wish those were the only two comments that were thrown my way, but unfortunately they weren’t. All throughout high school, my grandparents, aunts, mom’s friends and sometimes even my own friends would not even ask me if I knew how to cook, but rather what I could cook. I always responded with, “I’m not that good, so I let Amma do all the cooking.” And I always received the response, “You don’t cook? How are you going to get married?” Except this time, these folks weren’t joking when they asked, as was evident by their concerned, stone cold facial expressions. These same individuals never asked my brothers what they knew to cook. They never even asked my brothers if they knew how to cook. It seemed like they only cared about what my brothers liked to eat.
Though my brothers were never taught to cook by my mother like I was, they still manage to put food on the table for themselves. There was one incident I remember during my senior year of high school: I was out with my parents and my younger brother was left home alone. It was late by the time my parents and I got home, but when we walked into the kitchen, we found a stack of homemade burger patties. My brother must’ve heard us as he immediately came downstairs saying, “No, don’t eat those!”
“I mixed up the spices, I put sambar powder instead of red chilli powder. They looked the same so I got confused. I mean, you guys can try it but I’m warning you.”
Forget the fact that he mixed up two resembling spices — he put together a whole burger patty all by himself. I’d never even seen him step foot in the kitchen and now he’s making burgers? My jaw was on the floor. I asked him, “Where did you learn to make this?” He shrugged, “I just googled it.”
He started making more and more food all by himself. He started pouring his own dosa batter onto the stove, making perfectly shaped dosas. His chapatis were perfectly round. His grilled cheese sandwiches were never burnt. One day, he even made tomato chutney all by himself without a written recipe, as my mom’s brief verbal explanation was enough. Of course, sometimes he messed up. Sometimes he would burn something or, as mentioned earlier, mix up two spices. But that didn’t matter. There were no snarky comments made when he messed up. Nobody asked him how he was going to get married. There was none of that. Instead, when he made something tasty, he was met with comments like, “Wow! Whoever marries you will be so lucky!”
I had a similar experience that summer when my older brother hosted my younger brother and me at his home in California. That was the first time I saw him cook, and the food he made tasted fantastic. He learned to cook of his own volition and found comfort in recreating his favorite family recipes. Every phone call he had with my mother always ended with her giving him a new recipe to try or convincing him to get an Instant Pot. After coming home, I told some of my friends how good his cooking was, but again, I was met with, “Wow, his future wife is going to be so lucky.” Again, though my older brother is talented in the kitchen, nobody pushed him to practice this skill. The reactions my brothers get are not the same reactions I get. On the rare occasion that I do end up trying to make something and it turns out tasty, I don’t receive any praise.
It’s not that I’m asking for praise or anything like that, but it feels like an expectation for me to be good at cooking, and for my brothers, it can be a fun side hobby. Many women in today’s society, not just in the South Asian community, feel that cooking is an obligation, rather than a life skill. My friends have similar experiences to mine. Some have been explicitly told that it is the woman’s job to cook for the husband and family and to always have a meal ready for them after work. There are even memes about the idea that you won’t get married unless you can cook well. It’s been ingrained in many of us that cooking is a “feminine” skill, which in turn discourages men from cooking. This thought process affects us in our day-to-day lives — I know some men who refuse to or are even discouraged from cooking for themselves since they are told that it’s “not their job” and that it’s “girly” to want to cook. Some women I know are genuinely afraid that they won’t get married because their cooking is not the best.
My friends and I constantly hear comments like, “No one will marry you unless your rotis are round,” or “No one will marry you unless you can make chai.” These remarks make us feel the need to defy this narrative, and we do so not by introducing the idea of cooking as a “feminine” skill or as a part of a homemaker’s craft, but as a basic survival skill, something everyone should learn to do. Teaching our generation of friends and family that cooking is meant for everyone, not just women and homemakers, helps us shut remarks like these down for good, and can encourage men like my brothers to practice and perfect their cooking skills. One day, they may even be able to teach me to become a better cook — how to chop vegetables as fast as our mother does, how to gauge how much spice to put in a dish and remind me to put oil in the pan before the potatoes when making potato curry.
MiC Columnist Smarani Komanduri can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org