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The rise of cooking as therapy

Cooking can be an ultimate selfcare routine which stabilises the mind and creates a comforting rhythm

As Ramadhan approaches and preparations begin in households to mark the holy month with religious observances, there is also excitement around new recipes - browsing the Internet for the latest fusion dishes is the rage.

There are aspiring chefs in almost all houses now and the profession is no longer scoffed at.

Such are the benefits of cooking that culinary therapists are now engaged to work with clients to find ways to cope with specific stress areas. Today, cooking is recommended for people with a variety of mental health conditions ranging from depression, ADHD and eating disorders.

How has cooking, once seen as a dreary routine of everyday life, suddenly become an aspirational goal, a career and even a way to heal?

For one, cooking is seen to be a welcome distraction from the disturbing news that is always around us – climate change, the economy, politics – there is almost never a dull moment in the news cycle.

With its repeated and predictable outcomes, cooking stabilises the mind and creates a comforting rhythm of peeling, chopping, boiling and so on. That the result will be a guaranteed appetising meal is another plus.

Being in the kitchen gives us a sense of power and control, and provides a limited, doable challenge. As the result is immediately tangible, it keeps motivation going. The tasks of measuring ingredients, adjusting heat and planning service, all help in concentration and focus.

Cooking helps us to feel we are a part of something bigger. Creating and sharing a meal, to some praise, is a satisfying end in itself. It serves the altruistic side that makes us want to be a part of a community, something larger than ourselves. On top of that, we are also in control, knowing what is going into every dish and finding ways to make meals healthier.

Are there any preferred types of cooking? Therapists have found that baking makes people happy – it has a calming effect. This links to ‘behavioural activation’ that increases “goal oriented behaviour and curbing procrastination'', according to the Wall Street Journal.

Dishes inspire, but they also nudge us to create. The layering, colouring, arranging and serving all combine to produce that perfect dish that is the product of multiple skills, from planning to execution.

Creative, calming, taking the mind off temporary distractions – cooking can be the ultimate selfcare routine. That there is a beautiful dish at the end of it makes it more welcoming.

Most of all, cooking comes with stories. We remember dishes as moments in our past, through our grandparents’ stories, the links that connect us to our families, our communities and remind us that our happiest times are those spent around food.

So the next time you are feeling slightly blue and low, go to the kitchen instead of the couch. Lose yourself in the world of spices and herbs, watching them miraculously turn into a dish that reminds you of happier, more calming times.

Sandhya Rao Mehta

The writer is an Assoc Prof, Dept of English Language and Literature, Sultan Qaboos University

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