Picture this: a billboard on soy sauce targeted for men. Its color base is black and its object is a bottle being proudly championed by a man’s hand. If one happens to pass by a three-hundred-year-old market area in Senen, Central Jakarta, this is the image that they would see.
Look closer and one would realize that this is not an ordinary billboard. Next to the advertised product is a message that reads, “IT’S TIME FOR REAL HUSBANDS TO COOK.” This message is considerably rare in Indonesia as it challenges the gender construct in our local society which sternly dictates the gender roles in the kitchen.
When one talks about cooking at home, all fingers are usually pointed towards women. It is argued that this mindset stems from a traditional hunter-gatherer society concept in which women, presumed as the weaker sex, are responsible for managing and processing domestic resources. However, when one shifts the conversation towards cooking in a professional kitchen, all sleeves are rolled up to make way for men. Ask anyone on the streets to name the most successful chefs in the world and the majority of them would list names like Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsay.
In developed countries such as Sweden, male celebrity chefs like Oliver have inspired men to pick up the apron and cook at home. A 2017 study from Uppsala University finds that male celebrity chefs have incorporated what traditionalists have seen as an element of femininity and shifted it into a concept of domestic culinary masculinity. This concept creates a perception among men that cooking can be enjoyed as a form of personal leisure as well as an engaging activity with other men.
Unfortunately, the progress in domestic cooking has not shown any sign of improvement in developing countries like Indonesia. A 2015 collaborative report by the UN finds that the majority of men living in Jakarta, Jayapura, and Purworejo still perceive domestic cooking as strictly feminine. Between 84 to 91 percent of the sampled male believes that it is a woman’s most important role to take care of her house and cook for her family.
Even for Indonesian couples living in a flexible or task-based sharing household, domestic cooking remains a woman’s job. A 2018 report by HILL ASEAN finds that cooking is the least favorable activity that male partners are willing to do. It is surprising how little this issue has been raised, hence the lack of further investigation on the findings.
Looking at my own experience, the issue of male involvement in domestic cooking may come from the traditional upbringing of a son. As a child growing up on the outskirts of Jakarta, I was only allowed in the kitchen to grab a plate. Even now in my young adulthood years, my mother still finds the concept of men cooking quite hard to swallow. She is a firm believer that boys don’t cook, and that cooking is an activity that only women should take full responsibility for. This saddens me as a son; my intentions to cook could help relieve some of the burden that my mother has to carry.
If I have a meal in mind, I am still forced to migrate to a friend’s house in order to cook a plate of it. The last time I did this, my friend’s mother ended up staring at me in shock. She tasted a dish that I had seasoned and instead of expressing her appreciation, what I got was a pair of glaring eyes that implied it was not acceptable for men to excel at domestic cooking.
More men cooking at home appears to be a great development in domestic equality, but it also might discourage men from paying more attention to other household chores. The previously mentioned 2017 study on Swedish men finds that men’s appropriation of domestic cooking might be a result of avoiding the less enjoyable household chores, such as washing the dishes and cleaning the kitchen. If this continues to happen, domestic equality will be stuck solely on the activity cooking and no further progress will be made in other household responsibilities.
Nevertheless, allocating more cooking chores to the male sex could at least be a helpful start. Parents could start by involving their sons in the kitchen. Simple activities like cutting fruit are found to be helpful as well in exercising a child’s soft motoric capability.
As for husbands, they can start by signing up for cooking lessons. Luckily, the same soy sauce brand that advertises domestic equality offers this kind of program to men. They could immerse themselves in a community where men can connect through home cooking. This kind of community may cook up a new kind of masculinity that does not conform to the traditional domestic mold.
Valdy Wiratama is a research assistant based in Jakarta and a socioeconomic behavior enthusiast. When he’s not assisting projects or tutoring in University of Indonesia, he likes to catch up on the latest global news, analyze movies, read about indie culture, and write social commentaries.