“Men really have very big egos sir, how to get them (sic) to cook or help at home?"

The young woman asking this question was single, independent and despairing of Indian men in general. She was a television reporter from a Telugu channel and had just interviewed me with regard to a talk I had given in Hyderabad, presenting economic reasons why Indian men must learn to cook.

Aside from mumbling something about making sure she married someone who didn’t have that kind of ego, there was not much that I could say.

In a few minutes, another young female reporter buttonholed me for an interview (if you think I am boasting about the fact that reporters line up to meet me, you’re quite mistaken. They were there because one of the guests on my panel was a studly Telugu star). When the lights and camera were lowered, she had a similar question.

“Even if I find a man who is willing to do his share of domestic work, what about the in-laws?"

What about them, I asked, not a little puzzled.

“Telugu in-laws want a girl who looks after the kitchen and feeds their son well, so, what to do?"

Now, I consider myself something of an evangelist for the idea of getting men into the kitchen, and I talk, write and blog enthusiastically about what—to the majority of Indian men—is an amusing, esoteric notion. But, sometimes, I scratch my head when I have conversations of the type I had in Hyderabad, a heaving city where the middle and upper classes are notorious for the size of the dowries they demand for their sons and the domestic expectations they make of their daughters-in-law.

Of course, Hyderabad is no exception. As much as Indian women become increasingly visible in the workforce, the Indian family reacts by expecting her to become a superwoman, piling on so many expectations that she inevitably gives up and opts out. As someone in Bangalore said, yes, things have changed, women are everywhere at work, but at the end of the day, husbands want their salaries, but they also want hot chapatis on the table.

“Education among women does not necessarily increase their ‘autonomy’ in substantive ways, rather it may only lead to modernization and internalization of patriarchal norms…schooling seems to inculcate discipline, self-restraint, patience, routine and obedience to authority among girls," wrote Vinoj Abraham, an economist at the Centre for Development Studies in Kerala, in a study published in the Economic and Political Weekly in August.

Abraham’s study made this revealing—and disquieting—point: In 1983, the number of women graduates participating in the workforce was 61%. By 2012, that figure had fallen to 26%.

There is no single reason for these abysmal numbers, but the end result is clear: India ranks 11th from the bottom—120 of 131 countries—in the female labour force participation rate, according to an International Labour Organization report called “Global Employment Trends 2013".

My argument is—as it always has been—that at the heart of this disgrace is the belief instilled in the Indian male from childhood that he has no place in the kitchen, that he is the provider and must be cooked for and looked after.

Cooking is a metaphor, really, for every other gender classification that follows and provides the Indian male primacy at home.

I acknowledge it is difficult to expect someone brought up in privilege to suddenly take on the burden of cooking or other domestic duties.

But some men do.

After a talk in Bangalore, a woman in her 60s got up and said, “Let me tell you something about what men can do if they want."

She pointed to her balding, somewhat embarrassed-looking, husband and narrated her story. She had a “very successful" career, two children and it was all possible because, as she put it, “this man decided to take charge of the kitchen". Apparently, when she was at a crossroads—as many women often are, torn between home and office—her husband decided to up his game. He told her to forget about the kitchen. “I soared," she said, “I really did."

Her husband was an exception, but I want to believe there are more like him—caring and confident enough to not have bruised egos just because their partners want to fly. Indeed, I have met a few such men, but it’s quite obvious they are in a great minority.

I am still regarded as an oddity, the man who cooks, but I am delighted to see that many boys—perhaps encouraged by MasterChef, a television show I do not profess to watch—want to learn how to cook. It may be a fad, the latest in-thing among a certain class of boys, but it rocks.

For instance, my 18-year-old nephew, a computer whiz whose eyes light up when he’s discussing the latest operating system, displays that enthusiasm for only one other subject—cooking. He loves to discuss food and how it’s made. In our family, he and I are the only men who like the idea of cooking. It is clearly linked to the fact that he has a mother who did not bring him up with the ludicrous and retrograde idea that he has no role to play in the kitchen.

And that’s the key. Mothers—and, sometimes, fathers—determine a boy’s attitude to women and his role at home. The Telugu film star I talked about at the start of this piece revealed that he loved cooking—which is why he was there—and that interest was stoked by his father, who liked to cook. Similarly, cooking comes easily to me and my brother—a computer engineer with a high-power job in the US—because my mother, as I often mention, made sure we were afforded no gender privileges.

So, to the women who want someone who shares life’s responsibilities, I say, don’t compromise—find someone whose mother put him to work as a boy, and you will find a man who is comfortable with his place in the kitchen.

Fish in White Wine and Fennel Sauce

Serves 2-3

Ingredients

500g fish (I use surmai or kingfish, fillets)

Juice of 1 lemon or lime

2 tsp olive oil

K tsp butter

7-8 garlic flakes, crushed

2-3 tsp fennel (saunf) seeds, freshly roasted and pounded into a powder

K cup white wine

2 large tomatoes, puréed

K tsp sugar

2 tsp red chilli flakes (optional! Only if you want a zing)

½ tsp fresh ground black pepper

Salt to taste

Method

Wash the fish and drain all water. Marinate the fish with lemon or lime juice, sprinkle salt and fresh ground pepper and set aside for about half an hour. Fry the fish gently in olive oil in a non-stick pan, do not brown. Set aside.

In the same pan, lower the heat, melt the butter, add a little olive oil and fry the garlic and fennel powder for 2-3 minutes. Stir in the white wine and reduce slightly. Add the tomatoes, sugar and salt to taste and give it a stir. Add the chilli flakes (if you must) and sauté for 1-2 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

Arrange the fish in a warmed serving platter. Spoon the sauce over.

This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar also writes the fortnightly science column Frontier Mail for Mint and is the author of the book The Married Man’s Guide to Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.

Also Read | Samar’s previous Lounge columns

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