I hated cooking growing up. Being a girl in a 10-member Nigerian household meant that all the cooking was designated to us, and from a young age I knew I was expected to learn how to cook. Unfortunately, this is a common, traditional belief many Nigerians held: women were caregivers and men were the money makers. A reality a lot of African women have had to deal with.
I started cooking at the age of 11, with breakfast, lunch and dinner provided by myself, my mother and my sisters for the rest of the family. While I was at an age where many young British girls would have been enjoying their childhood away from the kitchen, I admittedly loved learning traditional Igbo and Kalabari dishes from my mother. But growing us as a member of a large household this joy for cooking didn’t last long. Catering to such a big family was always chaotic, cooking wasn’t as peaceful or glamorous as the TV chefs made it out to be - in fact it felt like a major inconvenience to my preadolescent life at the time.
“If you can’t cook how will you look after your family in the future?” was a phrase repeated to me by many of my elders. The notion that cooking wasn’t something to feed and nourish my body, but to make a family and “keep” a man, catalysed my decision to stay away from the kitchen.
Adhering to this outdated rule for years increased my boredom for cooking. I hated that it had become a focal point of my everyday life and ultimately, I hated that I was part of a patriarchal practice that didn't benefit women.
After years of cooking rice and stew, jollof rice, and many other Nigerian dishes to keep the family happy and to “practice for my future husband” (as many African aunties would say), I began to detach myself from these traditional dishes by refusing to cook them and would opt for the easiest dish to make. A typical Nigerian meal roughly takes a minimum of an hour per dish to make and if you’re preparing for a party, well that’s a whole day event in the kitchen. This is when I really started to lose my passion for cooking and began rejecting the idea of being a homemaker.
I grew up adamant that I would never cook for a man or fall into ‘homemaker’ tendencies and for many years whilst studying away from home, I was successful. And then I met my current partner.
Entering my first mixed-cultural relationship was significant, there was no pressure to do anything gender performative and no expectations for me to show homemaker tendencies. I was suddenly exposed to Indian traditions, cultures and foods far removed from my own. It enabled me to look at food and cooking in a whole new way. While my partner grew up in a household where his mother did a lot of the cooking too, I saw how important family was during dinner times. They always had dinner together and usually with his extended family, this was a new experience for me. Although meals were prepared everyday in my family, there was no strict meal time and no expectations to sit around the dinner table. Meal times were an experience, an event they knew they had to partake in every night.
Rules were thrown out the window, there was banter around the table, mannerisms which some might find questionable, such as chewing loudly, slurping and using hands to eat almost everything. This was complemented by an exploration of foods that I’d never tried before like gulab jaman, lotus root vegetable and chaat.
Wanting to know more about his culture opened up my eyes to the joy of cooking again. Suddenly I found myself enjoying making meals, and relishing in the completely laidback way he and his family ate. Before, loud and messy eaters would make my toes curl, but I found myself relishing in scooping up rice with my hands and licking my fingers with delight.
I found my partner too became more and more interested in food. Growing up he wasn’t responsible for cooking, much like the men in my family. He had the freedom to live and enjoy his youth and was catered for by his mum. But this also meant he never experienced the joys of cooking for himself. Together we now explore our own cultural dishes, and teach one another how to cook, its origins and where to source lesser-known ingredients. Something I’d never been bothered about before.
Now that the pressure is almost non-existent, I find myself falling back in love with my cultural dishes, I enjoy making them with my partner or going out to eat these dishes at a restaurant. I have always been proud to be a Nigerian and trust me I believe Nigerian dishes have the best flavours. So, it’s great to share things like okra soup, egusi soup, moin moin and chin chin with him. My reasons for cooking no longer centred around a need to know, but rather a genuine desire to learn and experience something with my partner.
And although I’m unlikely to ever enjoy cooking for a family of ten again (I can just cope with two) removing the pressure to resist anything ‘gender-bound,’ mixed with a yearning to embrace the food-centred traditions of my mixed-cultural relationship has made me fall back in love with cooking again.
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