Living arrangement

The heart of the house

12:02 PM

A few weeks ago there was a cover story about the evolution of the Indian Kitchen in the Crest edition of the Times of India, and it explained how the modern age desi kitchen is no longer that dark cubicle confined to an obscure corner of the house where only the women slaved and sweat to prepare the dishes for the whole family, you can read both articles here and here.

As usual it got me thinking, and I have been meaning to write about it sooner, if life didn’t get me busy away from the keyboard with little time for deep thinking. It made me suddenly realise what I as a foreigner from another culture found unsettling about kitchens in India. They are different, I wrote about it before, in fact they are a room that will unsettle most expats coming to India. There is a lack of space management in most of them, but then there are crappy kitchens in Switzerland too so that couldn't be it, until recently I just couldn’t exactly pinpoint what was the fundamental difference between the desi one and the Swiss one. These two articles finally put clarity in my thought.

The traditional kitchen in India tend to divide family members, the women cook, the men eat first in the living room or bedrooms. In Switzerland as it is the case in most of Europe the kitchen UNITE, not because men cook, nope, there are many from my grand parents generation that could not even operate the stove, but because the kitchen in Europe is not only the room in which the food is cooked, it’s the room in which the food is eaten as a family, and there is a solid reason for that that is deep rooted in culture and tradition which I will now elaborate. Because in Europe the saying that the kitchen is the heart of a home has actually a practical necessity to it.
In the old days, before central heating as we now know it with radiators in every room existed, there was still an absolute necessity to keep the house warm in the long and rather brutal Winters. Most people lived in cottages or farmhouse too. And if you pay close attention visiting an old country home you will notice that first houses are multi-storeyed most of the time, and that the kitchen occupy a significant amount of the ground floor, often half of more of it and usually had a big wood fuelled stove against one of the wall, and a big table in the middle with various storage units around, more often than not the entrance to the house also goes through the kitchen. The first floor is where the bedrooms are, and the second half of the ground floor is dedicated to the living room. Winters in most of Europe are harsh, and long, the necessity to reduce the surface of the house on the cold ground is one of the reason as of why there are two or more floors in a house, the second is that the kitchen and its stove had to be big enough to heat the whole house. The kitchen stove was always serving a double duty in farmhouse: cook the food and heat the rest of the house to a somewhat confortable enough level to survive. I have some relatives in rural Switzerland who still have their original stove/heater devices in place, built in lieu of a wall, with the stove side being functional and the other side (the living room side) clad in ceramic tiles to radiate the heat from the stove into the living space better. Wood was something people would not waste, so burning some meant it had to be energy efficient too.
The kitchen being by far the warmest of all was quite logically the one that brought people together in the evening and cold mornings, people sat down together in there to eat, the rest of the day, whoever was in charge of food preparation would continue to reside in there and tend the fire, while the other went out tending to cattle and fields. With cities and industrialization taking over, came some luxuries such as central heating in townhouses and apartment building, but the concept of gathering together for a meal was part of the collective and even today you will always find a dinning table or eating area in the kitchen of even a small flat in most of Europe and people will still make as much of a point to eat TOGETHER as they used in the old time, simply because, that’s what we do. The kitchen was also kept super organized and clean on a farm to minimise the occurrence of pests, in country homes dry goods were stored in a separate room called the pantry, or even in the cellar where it remained cool even in Summer and prevented goods from rotting too fast.

In most of India the cold days are few, it’s just a matter of a few weeks to survive, what people have to cope with is intense heat, and because of this, the necessity of having the kitchen as the center of the house was inexistent. The kitchen was that room you could tuck away in a corner, that had for only function to serve the function to prepare the food, possibly without having the food odour invade the rest of the living space. The full Hindi term for the kitchen which I heard on occasion is “rasoi ghar” ghar meaning house, which strongly suggest that in many places the kitchen might even have been a completely separate entity as well. With women spending the whole day in said room, and men and guests living in the main house where they would be served the food. Having the kitchen tucked away also probably made keeping household pests in check and the rest of the house hygienic and so because the kitchen was to be just for food the necessity to have them big and super organized and easy to scrub clean wasn’t as much of necessity as it was in their Western counterpart.
Now the reason why things are no changing in India and these articles mentioned above were written, is that there is a strong shift in family and living set up in India. Space in urban India is becoming a luxury, tucking the kitchen away is no longer as easy as it was in a house. Families are smaller and more often than not nuclear in metros. What’s more life for the middle class urban dweller has become hectic with long commutes, most people out of the house the whole day long and far less time to really connect as a family unit. Even if the lady of the house is like me a stay at home mom, the last thing we want is to sweat alone in the kitchen after the husband and kids came back from office and school, cut out from our family out of the sheer necessity of feeding the troop. So the modern age desi kitchen now more than ever need to bring people together again. Newly built kitchens are more open, bigger and more organized, and significantly closer to the living area than the ones found in older houses or apartment buildings.

For DH and I it was one of the room we inspected the closest in all of our flat hunting rounds, the kitchen was and has always been the room that could make or break a deal. For me because of my European sensibilities, and for DH because he grew up in a house where the walls of the shabby cubicle that was his mom’s kitchen have been broken to be a huge living space, my MIL’s kitchen is comparable to the European country style kitchen, the dinning table is in the middle of it, the puja room in a corner, and a day bed tucked against a wall with a small coffee table on which she cuts vegetables. The washing machine and fridge also occupy the space while still allowing family to roam around, in her house the kitchen is the casual family gathering place, visiting relatives will only enter through the back door that leads to the kitchen, with the main entrance being relatively small and reserved only for more formal guests to enter the drawing room we only use to receive said guests or watch TV. His family kitchen arrangement growing up wasn’t the norm at all, but he grew up with the idea that a kitchen should unite people, so for him it should continue to be so.
And that is the room we actually spend the most time in on any given morning preparing tea, and breakfast, the room that binds us before the obvious and required separation for the day to come. At night that’s the room I often find myself following DH in to chit chat about the day as he unpack his tiffin and get his food on the plate (he likes to eat later than I do) and he set his smoking area in the utility space near the window in the room right next to the kitchen.
Our kitchen needs to be neat and liveable because it serves more than just the requirement to get the food ready.
The only thing that differs in ours is that it still only boast the bare necessities in matter of gadgets, but that is already more than what the old age desi kitchen had in the first place.

3 comments

  1. Hi,

    There was a time when people did sit on the floor and eat food in Indian kitchen. In those days the kitchens were quiet big in mostly the bastion of women. There are various curious practices that were followed in Indian kitchens during olden days:-

    - The women during menstruation, or after giving birth to a baby were not
    allowed to enter the kitchen as they were considered to be 'un-clean'.
    - Non-Hindus (Muslims, Christians, Jews, Parsis etc ) were not allowed to enter a
    -Hindu Kitchen. Also within the Hindu religion itself, people belonging to a lower caste were not allowed to enter the kitchen belonging to a higher caste, with the exception of Brahmins. Brahmins were allowed to enter any Hindu Kitchen
    as they are the highest in the Indian caste order.
    - Non vegetarians of any caste or religion were not allowed to enter a vegetarian Hindu’s kitchen.


    A woman during menstruation was considered 'polluted' and 'not clean'. During this time, a woman was not allowed to enter the kitchen, or Pooja room, or temples. She was not allowed to bathe at public places such as ponds or rivers, even community wells were off limit. She was given water and food to survive, but her eating and drinking utensils were kept separate. This probably gave the women much needed rest from the harsh chores of daily life. After the first four days, the earthenware used by the woman were broken and discarded, she had to take a ritual bath and then only could she enter the kitchen to resume her duties.After giving birth to a baby, a woman was considered ‘un clean'. For the first 40days, she was not allowed to enter the kitchen, Pooja room, temples, or participate in religious ceremonies or move out of the home. The food was prepared by the other members of family. This probably was imposed to give the new mothers much need rest from their daily chores and also bond with the newborn baby. After 40days, the earthenware used by the woman were broken and discarded, a ritual bath was given for purification before she could enter the kitchen and resume her
    duties.

    People were not supposed to enter kitchen with wearing shoes or leather items as it was considered impure. Many of these practices were ofcourse meant to keep contamination out of food.

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  2. Yup my point exactly :) Kitchen in India tend to divide more than they unite people, it's the bastion of women, but only the "pure one". These practices are a "luxury" the climate allowed, in Europe kicking someone out of the kitchen most of the year could have pretty much sentenced that individual to their death by making them sick. In old farmhouses the kitchen also had for duty to feed the hired farmhands as well, showing how undiscriminating the room in question was.

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  3. apple5:12 PM

    Hi,

    I think many of the practices emerged to save people from contamination. In hot, humid weather the challenge was to keep food fresh and free from germs. People had a basic understanding what was ;clean' and what was 'unclean'. So they used it as a thumb rule using religion.

    Another example was the practice of saving infants from 'evil eye'. In olden days due to lack of medical facilities, infant mortality was high, that is perhaps why babies were kept protected during that vulnerable period from outsiders carrying germs. Later on this practice lost its scientific reasoning and got associated with supernatural powers. We lost the scientific significance of most things and carried out empty traditions.

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