IT is a bright Goan afternoon and I am learning to make chicken cafreal and rava-fried surmai. It is my first time in a restaurant kitchen and I am naturally nervous: what if I make a mistake? A sip of kokum sharbat and my sous chef’s smile however helps me relax. Soon I am busy chopping chilies and coating the fish with semolina. Just three hours away from my flight, I would have been fretting under normal circumstances, but here I am unusually calm. I am not thinking of the bumpy flight, nor do I remember my impending deadlines — all I can focus on is turning the fish gently so that it doesn’t break.

I started cooking when I was barely twelve. No, it wasn’t because I was expected to or required to, but because I enjoyed spending time in the kitchen. Watching water change into tea and rice turn into idlis filled me with wonder. I would watch my mother wash, chop, and stir the vegetables in perfectly choreographed movements and marveled at the ease with which grandmother turned flour into rotis. It seemed like magic, magic that I wanted the secret to.

Maybe it was my drive to be like my mother, or maybe it was my love for food, but before I passed school I was already making complete meals. It made me a star among friends and family. It also gave me the confidence to banish all cooks: if I cooked so well, why would I need someone to cook for me? While it was great in the beginning, cooking five meals a day eventually started to get on to me. With responsibilities to fulfill and a life to live, cooking no longer gave me pleasure — it was a duty to be fulfilled. Meals became a burden and the kitchen a nightmare. So much so that I do not remember the last time I enjoyed cooking anything. This is why my experience in
Goa surprised me.

Cooking, until not too long ago, was a responsibility that rested with the women of the house. From time immemorial to our recent past, while the man was supposed to protect and provide, women were supposed to feed and nurture. A role most women play even today. Some willingly, some not so much. With changing lifestyles, increasing pressures and blurring gender roles though, one does see a change. Cooking has been fast emerging as an activity people turn to for leisure, even pleasure.

Debbie Mandel, author of Addicted to Stress, had famously mentioned in an interview with the New York Daily News that cooking is a great de-stressor. Stress, she said, can numb your senses; cooking activates them. A quick search reveals umpteen studies which validate that cooking is indeed great for mental health and overall well-being. Some say it acts as a natural creative outlet, some say it helps you focus, some associate it with meditation. A friend and fellow writer, Kalyan Karmarkar, who cooks almost all his meals, tells me how cooking, for him, is about concentration and creativity. The act, he says, needs him to focus on the task at hand, which in turn helps him, be more mindful. “In the end that is what we all want, isn’t it?” He asks rhetorically.

A quick social media poll reveals that most people find cooking therapeutic. Some say it helps them reduce anxiety; others feel it has helped them eat better. Therapists suggest cooking to their clients; doctors advise patients to make their own food. The appreciation and gratification that comes with it, also enriches them emotionally. Modhurima Sinha, a friend and director of public relations with Taj Hotels, tells me how she enjoys cooking for the fulfillment it brings to her and the joy it brings to others. Priyanka Agarwal, a fellow food writer meanwhile recalls how cooking has helped her disconnect with obsessive thoughts. As I listen their experiences, I am reminded of my own. The joy on the faces of my children, the satisfaction a husband derives from a home-cooked meal after a long day at work, the gratification of a home cooked meal, the time-out cooking compels me to take from work — these are indeed things I had been overlooking so far.

But what if you don’t cook for pleasure but out of need? There sure are enough of us who have to cook daily. Don’t they, like me, get sick of it? I ask a friend who loves spending time on elaborate meals even after doing that very same task day-after-day for 15 years. “I am not required to but I chose to cook for my family every day,” Vidula, my friend, tells me one evening. Cooking, she argues, is a way to express her love not only to others but also to herself, “I would not cook anything I do not enjoy. It is very important to cook for yourself too.” she asserts. And just like that, I know what I have been missing. As I leave her place after another elaborate meal made with love and passion, I know I have to give cooking another shot.

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