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Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

Opinion | At the whisk of a ladle, we’ve all become home chefs now

As a species experimenting with diets dating back to the Palaeolithic age, we had almost stopped cooking at home, thanks to the utter ease of ordering food in

As a journalist and editor, research/studies/findings on urban (and urbane) eating habits had always fascinated me. There were so many story ideas that would emerge from these bodies of work. One that could be revisited over and over again—beefed up with new findings every other day—was how we, as a species experimenting with diets dating back to the Palaeolithic age, had almost stopped cooking at home altogether.

“Latest stats indicate an average household now eats outside food five times a week." Or “10 times a week"—yes, I was actually quite worried when I came across that nugget pertaining to one of the largest dining capitals in the world. Spared a thought for what such a denouement was doing to general health and wellness (another story idea). Even if there was no time to eat out, ordering in or takeaways were top of the menu.

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If there was ever a culinary equivalent of being insanely “woke", this was it.

I remember sitting in a taxi on my way back from work every evening, sifting through dinner suggestions on various food-ordering apps, and asking myself, “What’s it going to be tonight: those mini idlis smeared with ghee, or that meal box from the pan-Asian joint, or a thin-crust pizza?" Most times, I would order en route itself, so I’d get the delivery within minutes of reaching home. For next day’s lunch, I’d either store the leftovers (rare, would usually toss them), or, more fittingly (aka, staying abreast with the trend), use one or the other app to place a fresh order.

I had a supermarket right below my apartment, flush with enticingly fresh veggies, seasoned spices and exotic grains. Cooking would have been a piece of cake, but I couldn’t be bothered. There was an easier, lazier way out.

That’s how it used to be once upon a time.

These days, I wake up and one of the first things I think of is: What will I be cooking?

I rewind to the time I lived with my parents—for almost half my life. I wasn’t allowed inside the cooking chamber; I’d usually create a mess, break stuff, even came close to starting fires a few times. “Stay out," I was told firmly. “You’re a disaster when it has to do anything with the kitchen."

Well, I’m having the last—at times mirthless—laugh because not only am I solidly entrenched in cooking quarters these days, I am reportedly displaying signs of having inherited my maternal grandmother’s genes—the one who used to be a master chef long before the term was bandied around like essential services.

Other than being a late bloomer in the area of culinary arts, there’s been another positive. I am less of a waster, less inept with leftovers. For a very selfish reason (how I wish it was because I’m now more mindful and therefore more conscious of issues like hunger and deprivation): I realise I don’t want to junk food that I’ve put my heart and soul into.

On a long call with a former colleague, we talked of how the story has changed. “For starters, on the off-chance when I order food in, I find it unpalatable," she began.

“I know what you mean," I interrupted immediately. “I feel the same—like I know I can make much better rajma or my meat is way more tender and flavourful." Other than the fact that I/she/we don’t create an oil slick when I/she/we cook.

Social media has been an ego booster. Our posts showcasing what we’ve cooked ourselves garner at least double the likes and comments than stylised, prop-enhanced photos from fine dining restaurants.

For aeons, Indian men have been judged for their lack of epicurean inventiveness. But my single male friends, who had, in pre-corona times, relied heavily on the good offices of sprightly maids, are now having to contend with chopping/cutting, securing gaskets inside pressure cookers and tempering oils at specified temperatures.

One of them told me, “Earlier, when my maid called in sick and I didn’t want to order in, I’d make something basic to see me through: two-minute noodles, eggs and toast, at best dal and rice. But now, with the corona continuum, I’ve decided to hone my skills and eat well—who knows how long this will go on for? I’m making a chicken pot roast today. And guess what? I’m toying with the idea of baking bread, I watched an online video—it seems fairly doable."

Across genders, recipes are being exchanged on WhatsApp (lost count of the number of how-to methods I’ve written down and despatched, prompting friends to exclaim “Dude, you should totally do a blog!"), YouTube cooking tutorials are “most viewed", and there are gloomy predictions being made about the future of restaurant and delivery segments.

Now, the question is: As and when the (justifiably real) corona scare dissipates, will we revert to the gastronomic order of yore we inhabited a few months ago?

Probably not.

Cooking at home, I suspect, has become like the Stockholm Syndrome. We’re loving it even as we realize it is holding us hostage inside the scullery.

Sushmita Bose is a journalist, editor and the author of ‘Single In The City’.

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