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The Storytellers

Homemaker cooks up change for men in India's kitchens

Indian homemaker and actress Medha Gokhale runs a no-frills cooking class for men - an unusual concept in a country where the kitchen is still considered "women's work." Her aim? To gain more respect for women.

It's easy finding Medha Gokhale's house in the historic Sadashiv Peth district in the western Indian city of Pune - all you have to do is follow your nose. The mouthwatering smell of fried mustard seeds, coconut and green chilies wafts from her kitchen in a rambling, traditional wooden house or "wada" built around a century ago.

Inside, there's an unusual sight: A group of Indian men cluster around Gokhale, dressed in a purple sari, as she stirs a pot of rice and lentils and explains the basics of cooking Maharashtrian food, the local cuisine. Amid an array of steel pots and pans, the men learn everything from dicing onions, keeping the kitchen counter clean, kneading dough for rotis (Indian bread), to rustling up a few local dishes.

A traditional wooden building in Pune's historic district

The cooking class for men is held in a 100-year-old traditional building in Pune's historic quarter

This is by no means common in India, Gokhale says, where men are not encouraged to cook, especially in middle-class urban families, and young boys are brought up to believe that they have no place in the kitchen.

"Most Indian men think the kitchen isn't our domain, that it's a woman's world. They expect a plate of delicious home cooked food to simply materialize in front of them without any appreciation for what goes into making it," Gokhale, who also acts on stage and television and writes plays, told DW. "I want to change that mentality with my cooking classes for men."

Married men who cook?

The 53-year-old does that with a mixture of humor and charm in the local language, Marathi, to make the male participants feel at ease. Many come to learn how to cook before they go abroad to study or work. But even married men, food lovers and older widowed men aren't uncommon, Gokhale, says.

"Many are embarrassed when they come to my class that they don't even know how to light the stove or make a cup of chai (tea)," Gokhale, who has two grown-up daughters, says. "So, I reassure them that it's okay and that I can teach them from scratch," she says.

Inevitably, the four-day course ends up dealing with much more than cooking. Gokhale says she sometimes doubles up as a counselor, trying to understand the specific family situations and social pressures that some of the participants have to deal with. In particular, married men who cook are viewed as something of an oddity in Indian society, she says.

Javed Inamdar, a software engineer who learned cooking at Gokhale's class in order to help his wife who works too, says he's stopped telling his male friends and colleagues that he dons the apron at home.

"You're looked down upon if you say that you go home and cook for your wife," the 35-year-old says. "They used to say things like 'why did you get married if you need to cook?"

Valuing women through cooking

Gokhale, who grew up in Mumbai, says she was influenced by her own father who she remembers had no problem managing the kitchen when her mother was sick or when she went to her parents' home during pregnancy. By the age of 14, Gokhale says, she had developed a real passion for cooking, filling up several notebooks with recipes.

Indian men participating in a cooking class in India

Gokhale says she usually teaches groups of three to five men at a time

"Even my older brother used to help me out in the kitchen, and every dish I made was enthusiastically appreciated in the family," she remembers. Her own husband, a businessman, she says, isn't exactly crazy about cooking, but he does help her out in the kitchen. And that, Gokhale says, is what counts.

"When men help women out in the kitchen and begin shouldering cooking responsibilities, they begin viewing women in a different light," Gokhale says. "I've heard from so many men who have attended my cooking classes that they have learned to value and respect women because they now understand what it takes to feed a family."

Decline in home cooking

Besides, men who cook are more confident and more in touch with their family traditions, Gokhale adds, since many Indian traditions are firmly embedded in the cuisine. What's more, she says, cooking contributes to keeping families together in upwardly mobile India where both men and women work and increasingly struggle to find a work-life balance.

A faster pace of city life combined with an ever-increasing array of fast-food options has led to a general decline in home cooking, she adds.

"Everyone - whether woman or man - should know how to cook. Making your own food is so nutritious and fulfilling," Gokhale, who is also training to be a doctor in alternative therapies, says. "It's healthier, tastier and immensely more satisfying than anything made by the part-time cook or in a restaurant."

'A family secret'

In recent years, India has seen an explosion in television cooking shows dishing up foreign fare, which has in turn spawned thousands of fancy restaurants, food stores and baking classes. But that hasn't dented the popularity of Gokhale's no-frills, subsistence cooking course.

A man's hands stirring a pot

Men in the kitchen are an uncommon sight in urban India. But attitudes are slowly changing

Sanjay Pendse, a former journalist who now works in the IT industry, says Gokhale's course stands apart for a few reasons. "Medha teaches you lots of kitchen tricks and tips that no cookbook will tell you," the self-confessed "foodie" says, adding that usually those things are only passed down from mothers to their daughters in India.

The 45-year-old adds that he's picked up essential skills at Gokhale's cooking class that he would never have learned elsewhere.

"The most important thing is that she teaches us how to make our daily food. This is actually what is cooked in our homes. So, there's a huge comfort level," he says as Gokhale teaches him how to curdle yoghurt to make buttermilk. "It's like being let in on a family secret."

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