“Is cooking too stereotypical?” I wondered. After all, I enjoy cooking now but eschewed it while I was growing up because it’s girls’ stuff.
“Where are all the women?” I wondered, as I watched the first episode of Raja, Rasoi, aur Anya Kahaniyan.
But we know: cooks are women, chefs are men. History records not women’s innovations but male conquerors. A nameless woman introduces a dish to a mighty king. So he gets the credit, the memory.
And it is men who are the academics, who run the museums, who curate and dispense history. It is men who get to move easily within public spaces.
Which isn’t to say I disliked the show. Or even that there are no women in it. Just that non-fiction, just like fiction, should represent women’s lives and contributions.
Raja, Rasoi. . . is a cultural exploration of India, using food as a through-line. Episode one focuses on Rajasthan, and discusses its history, its people, and its iconic dishes. The music is upbeat and modern. The camera reveals bright cityscapes and washed out deserts. Graphics are stylized but easy to read. The opening credits are particularly beautiful and sumptuous. The show’s producers interview a variety of people, including historians, members of the royal family, and village women. Each person is treated with respect and appreciation.
Particularly fascinating is the way cultures combine to create something new. The show focuses on the importance and production of chilies. The narrator points out they are not native to India but to Mexico, and were brought to India by the Portuguese. (And if this sort of thing interests you, check out Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham.) Food is a way we can enrich one another.
The show also looks at historical records of the Rajasthan royal families. Having just watched Paheli again, I was delighted to see that many of the books feature the same red-with-white-embroidery covers that Shahrukh Khan’s character uses. The royal accounts discuss the day to day, including menus. One’s class even determined the type of servingware.
But that is part of the problem. We have royal records, and so we know what the royals did. Common people did not keep written records. And so credit must go to the named man, not to the anonymous person who may be the true innovator.
The city scenes (Jodhpur and Jaipur) largely show men moving through the world, cooking and eating street food. Women do walk through these streets, like a salmon swimming upstream. But the city is a world of men. And so we are reminded how often women are cut out of public spaces, and thus out of the public consciousness. That men are the default, normal, regular, women something else.
Suddenly I am reminded of a scene from 1998’s Duplicate, not a good movie but one I love. Shahrukh Khan’s character is a chef, applying for a job at a hotel. During his interview, he cooks a variety of dishes. His mother sneaks in and thinks the food too bland, so secretly adds spices. Khan gets the job, his mother’s contribution not mentioned again. (Did his new bosses have a problem with his food afterwards? Who knows.) The man is the chef, the one prized and paid for his expertise. But it is the woman’s knowledge and contribution that actually leads to success. But she is just a mom, just a widow, just a woman, who cares.
Raja, Rasoi. . . looks at the effect history has on food (and vice versa), and interviews people who have cooked their entire lives. One woman tears up talking about her chef father who was in demand before the Partition. She cooks his recipes, and the narrator explains they are known only to her. But I think the show also tells us: talk to our friends, loved ones, anyone. Learn their recipes. Learn their stories. Food is meant to be shared.