HUMANKIND first started cooking approximately 500,000 years ago. This would probably have taken the shape of meat and other ingredients heated over fires to make them more pliable and easily digestible.
What started out as a simple exercise grew in breadth and complexity, bolstered by the spice trade, the birth of modern recipes and the growing number of kitchen tools available to home cooks – from gas stoves to microwaves.
And for centuries, homecooked meals in all its permutations and iterations were both a staple and a necessity in any home across the globe.
But fast forward to the 21st century and things have changed dramatically. In Malaysia, the average urbanite is a time-strapped individual who works long hours, is often stuck in traffic jams and eats out or gets food delivered to them often.
Lack of time, a reliance on the culinary skills of family members like mothers and grandmothers as well as the increasing availability of restaurants and food delivery services have resulted in an entire generation who have had little opportunity to either learn how to cook or to enjoy the act of cooking.
In order for more Malaysians to start cooking again, there had to be the perfect storm – a force so strong, it collectively compelled an entire nation to cook. Enter the movement control order (MCO).
Cocooned at home for a month with little else to do and no prospect of eating out, many Malaysians have turned to cooking with a passion.
Facebook and Instagram feeds are peppered with pictures of home-spun meals, ranging from creative to wholesome, all conjured by denizens with little choice in the matter (eating out no longer is an option and grocery runs have to be limited) and perhaps more pertinently, maybe little else to occupy their time.
Unsurprisingly, according to Google Trends data, interest in recipes and cooking has reached sky-high levels since the MCO was implemented (a nearly 50% increase in searches) as more and more Malaysians venture into the kitchen.
For some intrepid Malaysians, the MCO has been the catalyst they needed to learn how to cook. Writer Asila Jalil, 26, confesses that prior to the MCO, her culinary abilities were limited to frying an egg.
“My working hours are weird and I come back late, so I always either eat out or at home (my mum cooks every day), so I’ve never felt the need to learn how to cook, ” says Asila.
Since the inception of the MCO, Asila has learnt how to cook from scratch, as she has quickly realised that many of the foods she wants to eat are no longer easily accessible. So, if she wants to eat it, she’s got to make it herself.
“I always eat ayam kunyit (turmeric chicken) sold by neighbourhood food trucks and of course I haven’t been able to get it. So I asked my mum to teach me how to make it. One evening, she just taught me and that was the first dish that I made myself because I wanted it badly enough, ” says Asila, who has since graduated to making egg sambal and okra sambal, among other dishes.
For others, being in self-isolation has meant more time to expand their previously limited culinary repertoire.
“Before this, I was very much an express cook who looked for recipes that took 15 to 30 minutes. I cooked quite infrequently, so I made mostly roast chickens and vegetables, because it was fast and easy.
“But now obviously because my husband and I are at home all day and have to have proper meals, I find myself making three meals a day. And I can’t be making all that roasted stuff every single day, so I’ve actually had to switch it up a lot more, ” says Cindy Eliza Vaz, 32, a senior digital marketing manager.
To date – with more time on her hands – Vaz has made dishes like nasi lemak, lamb kofta and asam pedas and has even learnt how to make pickles. “I am picking up new skills every day, ” she says.
Public relations executive Nazlin Amiruddin, 25, has also found herself embracing cooking a lot more these days.
“There isn’t anything else to do and I’ve learnt how to make some things like bread out of necessity, because my family doesn’t want to keep going out to buy bread.
“But also I find myself learning how to cook more of the food that I want to eat as opposed to what my mum cooks every day, ” says Nazlin who has used this time to figure out how to make oat cookies and char kway teow, among others.
For senior manager Sue Ling Woon, 37, being in self-isolation has given her the opportunity to flex her creative muscles in the kitchen.
“My mum always cooked at home or I would eat out if I was working late. I could hardly ever indulge in prolonged cooking time. But during the MCO, I have been in self-isolation in my apartment away from my family, so I have found myself cooking a lot more, ” says Sue.
Her repertoire has expanded as the MCO has gone on, and she has made a variety of increasingly more adventurous meals, including homemade salmon avocado pizza, a rib minestra (soup) and palak paneer (an Indian dish made up of cottage cheese, spinach and spices).
“This experience has really sparked my creativity and given me newfound appreciation for people cooking daily meals for their families, because it’s a tall order, ” she says.
Return to the kitchen
For other urbanites, the MCO marks a momentous return to the kitchen.
“The last time I actually cooked was 15 years ago when I was in university. Since I started working, it has become a habit to eat out as my working hours are long, ” confesses litigation lawyer Samuel Tan, 37.
Since the MCO, Tan has started cooking every day, and has opted to focus his attentions on whipping up quick, easy meals so that he doesn’t waste his groceries and can replicate some of the ingredients for his next meal, if necessary.
“I’ve cooked stuff like stir-fried prawns with soya sauce, pasta aglio olio and stir-fried vegetables. I’ve kept things very basic so I don’t have to keep going back to the supermarket, ” he says.
Tan’s friend and fellow lawyer Alex Anton Netto, 37, has also made a kitchen comeback following a nearly 16-year hiatus.
“I stopped cooking after I started working as I simply had no time and my mum did the cooking at home. But before the MCO, it wasn’t so stressful for her because my dad and I were not always at home.
“But now, with all of us at home, she has had to cook every day for us so I decided to step up and take over some of the meals to give her a bit of a break, ” says Alex.
Since the MCO started, Alex has become increasingly eager to try new things and has made meals like spaghetti bolognaise and even a vegetarian version of bak kut teh.
“We are in a lockdown, so yes, I am cooking out of necessity, but I guess if I am going to cook out of necessity, I am going to experiment, ” he says.
Easy does it
All the home cooks I spoke to agreed that having not cooked much before, they’ve realised that cooking is far easier than they ever thought it would be.
“I really don’t think it’s complicated. And I think the thing people hate the most about cooking is the preparation, but supermarkets now offer things like peeled garlic and onions, so I think there are so many tools out there to simplify cooking, ” says Alex.
For newbie cook Asila, there have been some challenges during her two-week introductory crash course to cooking, but nothing that has deterred her from continuing.
“My mum is the type who uses the agak-agak method and just throws things in. And that has turned out well for her, but I’m not so good at that, so I still have to ask her a lot of questions. But still, I think cooking is a lot easier than I thought it was going to be, ” she admits.
Many of these newly minted home cooks have also discovered that the Internet is rife with recipe sites and YouTube videos to help them along the way. Sue for example, studied a cooking show, a video and a recipe portal before attempting to cook a piece of steak.
“I was feeling ambitious so I bought some wagyu beef, and just to make sure I got the technicalities of cooking the steak right, I checked a number of sites before I started cooking it. It’s great because there is so much information online, ” she says.
Because cooking is a skill that only gets better with practice, most of the newly converted home cooks I spoke to concur that this is something they hope to continue doing even once the MCO ends.
“You can only get better with experience, so I’ve realised that I will be more committed to cooking elaborate meals after the MCO ends, ” says Sue.
Tan also thinks that despite his busy schedule when he eventually goes back to work, he will set time aside to cook his own meals. “I think I will cook more over the weekend now, because it’s cheaper and it’s healthier – I know that now, ” he confirms.
Birth of MCO cooks
Being in a situation where people have been literally forced to stay at home and fend for themselves has given rise to a whole new generation of almost overnight quarantine cooks, a fact the Internet can attest to.
“Oh yes, my Facebook feed is full of meals every day. There are people who I never thought could cook who are posting all these amazing meals online. I think this entire experience probably reveals something, which is basically that everybody can cook if they try, ” says Vaz.
Tan says that the MCO experience has probably resulted in more confident home cooks, who have time to hone their skills and develop a passion for cooking. “I think it will make even those who have not much interest in cooking be more confident in making a meal for themselves, so they won’t just rush out to buy food anymore, ” he says.
Alex meanwhile says being cooped up at home has forced many young urbanites to embrace cooking in ways they never imagined they would.
“I think there will be a new breed of quarantine chefs coming out of this, think overnight cooking sensations who have suddenly developed culinary skills. But what’s amazing is that it took a virus for this to happen, ” he says.
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