Dear Men, We too can be Masterchefs!

Krish Ashok is a techie who occasionally indulges in making music, cooking food, internet memes and blogging

As an adult Indian male who cooks, I enjoy more accolades from friends and family than one would expect for what is really a basic life skill.

But then, that’s how low the bar is for the desi man. My wife, who makes a superlative chicken thoran among other things, regularly rolls her eyes to eyeball dislocation levels whenever an elderly aunt marvels – like someone encountering the Brihadeeswara temple for the first time – at my ability to use a pressure cooker.

The elderly men, since it’s 2019 and not appropriate to still disapprove of men in the kitchen, tend to go, “It’s not surprising. Most professional wedding catering chefs are men.” To which my response usually is, “But isn’t that because women weren’t allowed to be employed professionals for most of our history?” And then, after a few mythological diversions into whether Nala would have won Masterchef Australia, we sit down to enjoy one of mankind’s oldest pleasures – the act of turning carbon-rich products of photosynthesis into a shared experience of taste-filled joy.

My interest in cooking was originally utilitarian. A deputation to the United States at the turn of the millennium necessitated learning a few more recipes than just rice, sambar, potato fry and rasam.

So, I made a list of dishes I liked to eat and asked my mother and grandmother to write down precise cooking instructions at the level of teaspoons and tablespoons, milliliters of tamarind juice, micrograms of asafoetida and nanoseconds of time. The ladies told me to ignore recipes and just trust muscle memory from repeated practice.

Precision helps the beginner, but the key lesson, here, was to eventually learn to trust your taste buds (and nose) and not worry about adding a teaspoon more of coriander powder than what the recipe calls for (an extra teaspoon of asafoetida, on the other hand, will destroy your dish in much the same way that western colonial powers destroyed the spice’s country of origin – Afghanistan).

This column, while being rooted in my modest kitchen in Chennai, is going to be a free-wheeling exploration of the joys of amateur cooking and the science and history of food. The idea is to provoke your sense of culinary adventure and hopefully, your taste buds, and occasionally, those food purists who insist that a szechuan dosa is an abomination (it’s delicious!).

I will also occasionally dig into WhatsApp forwards and grandmothers’ tales to see if they make sense from a food science standpoint.

For instance, I’ve seen professional chefs on YouTube tell people to chop the ends of cucumbers and then rub that chopped bit on the exposed vegetable to somehow magically reduce its bitterness. Turns out, the physics of mild rubbing doesn’t alter the chemistry of bitterness.

On the other hand, your grandmother telling you to add salt to lentils only after it is cooked thorough makes scientific sense because salt can make the outer skin of lentils tougher and make them harder to cook.

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