Category Archives: cooking

Why do we like to cook?

I could have named this post ‘Why do we like to dance?’, but decided to name it what it is because of my new found hobby, cooking. A more apt name would have been ‘Why do we “zone out” so often?’, but it would have been incomprehensible to those whose lingo is not yet up to the mark.

To begin with, one must differentiate two kinds of cooking — one that is done purely with the motive of fulfilling a goal — ‘eat to live’, ‘pack children’s lunch boxes’, ‘Guests are arriving in an hour!’ and so on; and another whose main motive is not just the above but also something beyond it. What that ‘beyond’ is will be my focus here.

First of all, we must observe one thing about cooking that seems quite strange to people who don’t cook — cooking actually seems relaxing to people who come back tired from work! It involves more than a little mental and physical labour and yet people seem to love doing it. In fact, it is probably the one thing that is as pleasurable (if not more) than eating itself!

To answer this, we must first have a look at what it is that exhausts people nowadays. Leave out those who perform physical labour to earn their bread, who are exhausted by the sheer expenditure of energy: Most of those who will be reading this really don’t fall into that category. What seems to exhaust us is explained by people in two vague-sounding terms — ‘stress’ or ‘strain’.

So, what is it that is being stressed or strained? Surely not our muscles; most of us do not use them outside gyms or jogging tracks. Obviously, it is our senses; more precisely just one or two of them. This is pretty much a modern, white collar phenomenon.

It is remarkable that we can feel exhausted by simply staring at a spreadsheet or computer code for an extended amount of time. It is equally remarkable that the world can run because of people simply staring at spreadsheets or computer code for an extended amount of time. Welcome to the Information Age: all that is need to crank the wheels of civilisation nowadays is a computer.

With the assumption that all that matters is information fed into the thinking part of the brain, the computer and similar technologies like the television and Walkman try to feed in as much information as possible, in as focussed a manner as possible, preferably using only a single sensory system. It seems like there is some problem with this assumption — everyone nowadays complains of stress and strain without moving a muscle!

The problem seems to lie in the fact that humans have evolved to experience the world with all their senses — hearing, touching, smelling, tasting, thinking and feeling (yes, not just the physical senses!), whereas the modern living and work place seems to assume the exact opposite: humans function best when they work free of ‘distractions’, so deprive them of all extraneous sensory inputs and feed all information through one or two sensory systems.

This is the guiding principle behind the construction of most classrooms, laboratories, appliances like the TV, computer, tablet, workplaces (think cubicle!),  supermarkets and pretty much any modern place of production and consumption. People need to be ‘focused’: ensure they are not ‘distracted’ at any cost. Think about it: monochromatic or dichromatic color schemes, ACs to ensure the exact same temperature and humidity, noise absorbing ceilings and carpeting, coffee makers and canteens (no kitchens!) — The modern living and work places resemble the interior of pyramids, fit for the mummified dead, than places where actual living, feeling human beings exist.

Contrast this with a kitchen, and you get the picture why cooking is so much fun. Cooking is probably one of the earliest activities of the non hunter-gatherer human, and has not changed in its basic form for at least 6000 years. What we cook may have changed, but nothing else. It is a feast for the senses unlike any other: A well cooked meal is not just about the taste, it is about how it looks, smells, feels to the touch and feelings of happiness and contentment that it evokes. Here, the human being as a whole, and not just her brain is being stimulated. It is probably the most multi-dimensional of all activities that humans perform (with the performing arts coming in at second).

While cooking, we have to stand, walk, chop, grind, grate, stir, smell, taste, hear, mix, blend, heat, cool, wash and what not. There is simply no other activity that is even remotely close in terms of the sensory palette that offered to us, and we do all this almost unconsciously, so deeply ingrained is the activity of cooking in human civilisation. Living as we do in an artificial environment that has been consicously designed to deprive stimulation to our senses, cooking is our refuge, our hiding place, the one activity that cannot be done any other way if it has to be done right.

Cooking is therefore one of the few activities that makes complete use of all human dimensions, not just the cold, calculating, logical one. It is but a small wonder then that avid cooks find cooking relaxing, meditative and even therapeutic. It is no coincidence that good cooks seem to be ‘bursting with energy’, whereas those who cook because it provides them food are normally weary of cooking and look to eating out whenever possible.

What is more worrying is children growing up in such a sensorially poor world. Children, more than adults even, learn best through the use of all their senses rather than purely by information alone. There is a difference between reading about a sea breeze and experiencing one. There is a difference between learning about electricity and making a bulb glow or experiencing an electric shock. Learning purely by information flowing into the brain is necessarily boring, unidimensional and ‘stressful’. This does not mean we should put up a projector and show ‘educational’ movies. This is more of the same. What it means is that we have to rethink education, learning and living, adapting to the necessities of our age without losing what it means to be human.

Metaphysics of Cooking

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.