Before looking at cooking itself, one must look at the ultimate aim of cooking — eating. Eating is one of those rare things that is both spiritual and material at the same time. A well fed person is at peace with himself and the universe, overflowing with ‘the milk of human kindness’, so to speak. He is suddenly very generous and jovial, and feels a strange oneness with the universe. This lasts, of course, until he begins to feel hungry again. A perfect meal is a close approximation to the ideal state of moksha.
If moksha can be attained, if only for a brief while, by eating, then obviously cooking is the path leading toward it. It is very easy to take cooking for granted, since it happens so often all around you in all shapes, colors, smells and tastes. On a gross material plane, cooking implies both the knowledge of storing food and the creation and control of fire. The former is common to many living beings, but the latter seems to be unique to humans alone. Therefore, the very fact that we can cook puts us at a very advanced level of cultural development. Cooking at any level of sophistication implies the knowledge of what is ‘cookable’, and at what time of the year, and how to cook it — some foods are actually poisonous unless cooked properly. Thus, purely from a materialist perspective, cooking is dependent on the knowledge of plants, animals, seasons and how to access, control, harvest or adjust to them. This, as should be obvious, represents a huge body of knowledge passed on almost unconsciously from generation to generation.
But then, cooking has not purely been about survival. It is only a minority of low-lives that eat (and therefore cook) to live. Even more so than eating, cooking is a celebration, an act of creation, and an expectation. Cooking not only creates food, but also an atmosphere, emotions and modes of thinking, and in turn is influenced by them. A depressed person can only produce depressing food in the long run. Spices used reflect the personality of the society as a whole. It is not a coincidence that spicy food and emotional Indians go together. A person that I know, who has lived for quite some time in the US, mentioned once that ‘Indians kill the taste of meat by adding spices to it’, meaning that we never really taste the meat itself, but mostly how it is flavored. It is only a boring utilitarian view that can say that what is meant to be tasted is the meat itself. This is the view that can produce something like a rare steak. Fortunately, Indians will never be partial to this view, and my food will be ‘killed’ by spices for as long as I live.
What assumptions does one cook under? what view of the person who eats what is cooked is taken? Cooking, though mostly performed by a single person, is rarely meant for that person alone. However, the preparation must be appealing at first to the cook itself, and it is assumed that the persons who are being cooked for will find it similarly appealing. You do not go asking for everyone’s opinion during cooking, but only afterward. Thus, there is always assumed a continuity, a oneness between the cook and the eaters. It is expected there will be minor differences, but never major ones. One of the best ways to insult or show displeasure toward the cook (for any reason) is to complain loudly and/or refuse to eat, like all our movies and serials show us. The breaking of a social or emotional bond is thus best symbolized by the drama at the dinner table. Similarly, it is because we assume a continuity that we only ask strangers as to their culinary preferences before the preparation of a meal.
Cooking and consumption of its products remind us that the social universe is dominated by non-textual, non-lingual signs. Displeasure, happiness, amity, love, irritation can be so easily communicated without even saying a single word or writing elaborate theses or love letters. Food, again, is not just the mixing of specified ingredients, but also the physical manifestation of a specific mental and spiritual disposition. This is the reason why you can only do that much by following a recipe book. The ‘extra’ that every cook hopes for does not reside in any recipe read or listened to.
Both cooking and eating normally begin with prayers, which reminds us repeatedly of what assumptions go into cooking — thank the farmer, the rains, the earth, all which take the form of God in prayer. In this sense, cooking is also an acknowledgement of our dependence, mostly on things over which we have no control, and thus for whose suitable working we must be thankful. Cooking can also be an instrument of domination, and is particularly useful over those who go soft-headed after a great meal. It is only those who do not realize the power of cooking who can condemn it as a symbol of subjugation, just like they condemn motherhood or anything that applies to a certain gender, normally female.
Cooking, performed in an appropriate amount, is therefore as much a pleasure as is eating, and the possibility of creating not just something that tastes good, but also influencing individual behavior and by implication the mood of those around those individuals also puts a certain responsibility and a duty on the cook. Those who eat implicitly assume that those who cook will not poison their stomachs or their minds.
The greatest appreciation of a cook’s work does not lie in enthusiastic applause, but in a contented silence which seems to say ‘Everything is perfect. I am at peace. I am in heaven’. That cooks around the world can bring about this state of mind, rather than body, on a regular basis is something remarkable, and a true hallmark of a civilized people, regardless of their being rich, poor, urban, rural or tribal.