The great Indian Kitchen
This post is the beginning of a perspective on what drives our imagination when we think of our most important spaces.
It was just yesterday that I was having this conversation with a friend. She asked me, ‘why don’t you hire a cook?’ And it’s a question a few of my colleagues have asked too. And quite frankly, irrespective of whatever excuse I may give for not hiring, the honest answer may be that I have started enjoying cooking. I am not talking about the creative art of cooking when the right mood arrives. I am talking about cooking as a daily habit. The everyday cooking. An Indian household churns out Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and sometimes even an evening snack. There was a time it blew my mind to think even it’s humanly possible. Spending so much time every day cooking. What drives us to do this otherwise mundane, uneventful, and tedious act? And I must admit that there was a time when I used to view it just as dull, a necessary evil. When did this change?
Covid changed it quite a bit. Travel suddenly came to a standstill. I started spending more time at home. Ordering food delivery from an app like Swiggy didn’t feel right anymore. Walking/Yoga//house work/ exercise of some kind on an everyday basis became part of the routine. The environment was right to intellectually return to the kitchen, if I may say so. Suddenly, it felt like the most natural thing to do. No baggage of ‘how do you manage the gender story in your home?’.or ‘why don’t you use your time better in more productive things’-didn’t seem relevant anymore. Everyone was cooking. Irrespective of gender, age, caste, creed.
And the kitchen, the hearth of a home, finally got back some of its long-lost glory. I remember the kitchen of my next-door neighbor. Please note, as a daughter of working parents, I often spent my time at home hanging around my neighbor’s house. It was a small beautiful terracotta roof-tiled house straight from the ’70s, and its shape often fascinated me. It had a unique L shape, with the bulk of the horizontal part of the L being the kitchen. A narrow kitchen but undoubtedly one of the most beautiful kitchens I have ever experienced. A glass piece replaced a single roof tile just above the fireplace and near the chimney, bringing the optimal sunlight inside. Remnants of smoke that escaped into the duct and the sunlight often played hide and seek, creating a surreal experience one could trip on. This house was built by a father who used to work at the Cochin Port Trust. And his retired life mainly was shared between the garden he nurtured and a writing desk. His wife was my muse. She moved about her grand old kitchen and the backyard like a piece of art. I could watch her in action the entire morning and not get bored for a second.
She would sit next to the well and clean the fish. This is when mostly our conversation would begin. I would hop over the fence, sit next to her and watch a zoomed-in version of the cleaning. Later, she would move into the kitchen and make the fire. She would carefully pick the right mix of wood, coconut husk, and coconut shells so that the fire was the right temperature for the dish being cooked. She would choose the right textured earthen pot to make the most perfect fish curry for the day.
The kitchens I remember from my childhood have had a significant effect on me. It has ignited an aspiration of owning and sustaining life the way some of them used to. Having had the good fortune of growing up in a family where men cooked equally well, I have just about managed to escape the lack of connection with the hearth. For many women, it has been reduced in possibilities just with its strong associations around gender insensitivity and unfairness that the space has offered them from time immemorial.
Modular kitchen brands have used this insight – reducing the drudgery, convenience, style to make the women feel good in their kitchen. But none I have seen seem to look at the wholesome space the Indian kitchen is meant to be. What does it mean then to design a wholesome kitchen?
A space that is perhaps the most critical part of a home. Hearth. Health. Nutrition. Connection. Conversations. Heirloom. Love. Nurturance. Creative. Spiritual.
Image Courtesy: A representative image by Aishwarya Phadke https://www.instagram.com/p/CGuYtw_jVHz/