Why do I cook?
If I was an Indian woman, I would not be asked that question. But I am a privileged species, Indianus maleus, a novelty. There are more like me than there were when I began this column, but not quite enough and not quite with enough influence to turn back the tide of tradition.
People think I love cooking, but the truth is I am more interested in the end product, not the process. All that stuff about cooking being therapeutic, relaxing, a stress-buster—that’s nonsense, at least to me.
I cook because I like to eat. I cook because I like my family to eat good, nutritious food. I cook because I do not expect my spouse to, and it is not fair to expect someone else to do it every day. I cook because I want to set an example for my daughter, so she can be self-sufficient—although, as I have said before, I am conflicted because I do not want her to end up cooking for some idiot man. I cook because I must.
Along the way, I have found another good reason to cook: It keeps me healthy.
Cooking energizes the soul and taxes the body. It is quite one thing to think of what you would like for dinner and quite another to then make sure it gets on the table. There is lots of bending, chopping, scrubbing, wiping; exercising the forearms, the lower back, glutes, thighs and all manner of muscles you did not know existed.
I am reminded of the physical aspect of cooking whenever there are many people for dinner. Prep takes about an hour or two. This can be somewhat tiring, bending over your vegetable boxes or fridge chiller. Try not to bend too much because that will definitely strain your back. I use a kind of semi squat while rooting out, so to say, ingredients.
Prep is monotonous and repetitive, but, when done, it is quite satisfying to see neat piles of chopped garlic, ginger, onions, tomatoes, marinated meat, washed fish—this is hard to convey unless you do it.
The cooking itself, I find, is easy. Either you follow a recipe or follow your instincts, or combine a recipe with your instincts, which is what I often do. If you have two or more burners running, the process can be somewhat frenetic, with lots of to-and-froing, as you forget one ingredient or the other.
So, there’s the prep and the cooking, which isn’t hard-core aerobic exercise, but remember that you are standing all the time, and that is a good thing. In offices, standing desks are now a thing. You have heard, of course, that sitting is the new killer—worse, we are told, than sugar and red meat.
When I sit down to work—I work primarily from home—I do get up now and then to stretch and limber, but I sit around quite a bit, sometimes for 3-5 or 6 hours. Don’t be horrified. That sitting is compensated by the kitchen time woven into my life, so I do my standing then. Throw in a morning run and exercise or a swim, and I can shrug off the effects of long hours at a computer.
I have not yet discussed the really heavy kitchen workout, which comes from neither prep nor cooking. The real killer is the washing up: bent over a sink full of dirty pots and pans, scrubbing out those obstinate stains. When you do it over and over, rinse and repeat, that’s when you start feeling the strain, which is compounded when you start drying everything and putting it away.
What, you didn’t think that was part of cooking?
When you have a small kitchen, which I do, you need to prep, cook, clean and clear—and do it over when the next round of cooking starts. If you have many people visiting, you are unlikely to get done in one shot, as happened over the weekend.
I went through three rounds of cooking and clearing. Then the kitchen needed to be swept and swabbed before and after the party. I like the sink clear and kitchen sparkling the next morning. It’s not particularly agreeable using a grotty kitchen.
With a houseful of guests and a Saturday dinner party, I planned a reasonable number of entrées that needed a reasonable amount of prep, drawing inspiration from Morocco, Goa and Greece. I can handle heavy work in the kitchen, but I realized how taxing it really is when I swam for an hour and then spent the rest of Saturday cooking and cleaning. When Sunday came along, I could do nothing but recover.
Baked fish with white wine
750g firm white fillets (kingfish or surmai is ideal)
1 cup breadcrumbs (toast bread and pulse in food processor)
1 large onion, sliced in rings
1 tomato, chopped
8 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tsp dried thyme
2 tsp fresh pepper
3 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped fine
K cup white wine
2 tbsp olive oil
Juice of one lemon
Salt to taste
Heat 1 tbsp of olive oil in a non-stick pan. Sauté garlic and onion until soft. Add dried thyme, some salt and tomato and sauté for 2 minutes. Set aside. Grease an oven dish with the remaining olive oil, place the fish fillets. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Pour over the onion-tomato mixture, lemon juice and white wine. Cover with breadcrumbs. Bake uncovered in the oven at 200 degrees Celsius for 20 minutes or until done. Garnish with parsley 5 minutes before removing from the oven.
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.