x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

A woman's place is in the kitchen? Only if you want good food

Today's young adult women are losing their kitchen skills, which is natural in some ways but really a pity in others.

Juha was heartily eating his meal when someone interrupted him. "Why are you eating like that," the man asked, "with five fingers?"

"Because," came Juha's prompt reply, "I don't have six!"

Juha, the famous Arab/Turkish folklore character known for his humour, wit and sometimes stupidity, gives a quick illustration of a universal cliché: "The way to a man's heart is through his stomach."

And, over the last two decades, I have been noticing a lot of grumpy husbands in the Middle East.

"I love my wife, but I just wish she knew how to cook," has been the refrain of their quiet complaints. These are sweet, understanding men who know that a modern woman studies, works and must balance a lot of expectations, unlike most women of previous generations.

This issue is not limited to the Middle East; many wives just simply don't have the time, and those who do opt for easier, faster choices such as eating out or ordering in. So instead of learning traditional cuisines and secret family recipes, often couples just end up going to their parents' houses for that special family lunch.

"That is why we love our mothers," teased my friend's husband.

And when a stressed wife, balancing work and housework, tries to cook a meal, it takes so long that the husband and children may get impatient waiting. Not all women have the luxury of quitting their jobs and dedicating time to their homes and partners. At the same time, I can't help but bug those who do have that luxury to at least try their hands in the kitchen.

It can be quite therapeutic to cook.

At the recent Sharjah heritage festival, an Emirati housewife explained how rewarding it was to teach young Arab women how to prepare proper dishes: "It is fun cooking, and the food tastes better when done with love and experience."

She prepared several dishes in just an hour, handling multiple pots and ingredients with great skill, like a ninja in the kitchen. The young women watching were in awe of this traditional housewife, who admittedly has a lot more free time than most of us. It was a whole new perspective, as until recently many people have looked down on housewives.

Lack of practice does make you slow in the kitchen - I know that's true for me at least. It takes forever to clean, chop and prepare those fruits and vegetables. Last time I cooked a feast, it was for my parents, who graciously didn't comment on how long it took to make.

My mother, of course, couldn't resist offering advice and tips and trying to help, but I refused. I wanted to do it on my own. Thankfully, my parents have become semi- vegetarian (they still eat fish), which made it easier on me and my larder of animal-free products.

Don't tell anybody, but I tested the fish dish by sneaking a piece to my cats. They ate it happily, so I thought it was probably OK.

After many delays and spills, I served the food on a folding dining table. From a salad to the soup, and the main course of couscous and fish, I thought that I had outdone myself. The dessert, I admit, I bought from the bakery downstairs.

So I thought it was all going well until my father asked me if I had chilli pepper. I'm allergic to it, so I didn't, and my father made a face as he dug quietly into the food.

And my mother couldn't resist but to point out the flaws in each dish. Whenever you are good at something, you can't help but offer advice I suppose.

Oh well, you have to start somewhere. There is a lot of pressure on modern housewives to balance the needs of their families and the things that make them happy. It is the same for many husbands.

When partners make too many sacrifices, it always ends in disappointment. Whatever your view on modern versus traditional life, I admit that I really did enjoy that meal - although it needed quite a bit of salt. As the Arabic saying promises: "Only the one who breaks the nut, really enjoys it."

 

rghazal@thenational.ae

On Twitter @Arabianmau