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Can Mahshi nurture our souls? Cooking as a form of therapy

Can Mahshi nurture our souls? Cooking as a form of therapy

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Life Diversity

Tuesday 7 February 202305:23 pm
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هل يعالج "المحشي" جروحنا العاطفية... جرّبوا العلاج بالطبيخ

Just as the diseases of the modern era – like the depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder that accompany the conflicts of present-day man – spread in cities, so do treatments and solutions. In addition to clinical treatments in psychiatry, new suggestions such as music therapy, yoga therapy and breathing exercises are emerging on a regular basis.

This report by Raseef22 however, presents an easier and tastier proposal, with tools that are found in almost every home; cooking therapy. What is meant here precisely, is therapy through the act of cooking itself, and not eating, so as not to misunderstand this topic that “stirs the appetite” and offers a real proposal supported by specialized studies on the healing art of cooking and how it can treat some forms of depression.

Is cooking a cure?

Not all nice smells and aromas are classified as perfumes. The smell of caramelized onions when tomatoes and chopped garlic are added to them and then mixed together with a pinch of salt and pepper make for a delightful aroma. Or the scent of grilled meat marinated with spices when it wafts through the air, is a pleasant smell for most people as well. Or as Linda Wasmer, a researcher at Psychology Today, says, cooking is a state of meditation with the promise of a good meal afterwards.

Recently, a term known as "therapeutic cooking”, or "culinary therapy”, has emerged. It implies that cooking is one of the means that can be used to overcome, counteract, or even express some negative emotions and conditions.

According to the Society of Clinical Psychology, when you cook for yourself or other people, you’re setting an achievable goal for yourself. This fits within a type of therapy known as “behavioral activation” that is used to treat many diseases such as depression and anxiety, and focuses on increasing "a person's contact with sources of reward".

Cooking therapy means setting an achievable goal for yourself, which fits within a type of therapy known as behavioral activation and focuses on increasing the person's contact with sources of reward

Being creative when it comes to cooking means that you will get positive energy that will boost your psychological and mental state, and according to a study published in 2016 in the Journal of Positive Psychology, it was found that people who engage in creative activities such as writing, singing and cooking, live happier lives.

The study, which followed the lives of 658 people over a two-week period, found that people who did small creative tasks in the kitchen, such as cooking or baking, felt more comfortable and happy in their daily lives.

Cooking eases loneliness?

Writer Omneya Talaat, in her book “Loneliness Cooking”, talks about our collective pains and the small space in the house that brings life back into us, the kitchen, where we interact with colors, smells and sounds. She says, "Inside [the kitchen], the salt of my tears mixed with the salt of the food, and the delicious aromas of food taught me how to savor life and the universe around me. With every new meal that I master the art of cooking, I feel like a mountain of worries has collapsed within me, and with every new recipe I find, I feel that I gained a new wall to build between myself and the pain."

Rania Helal, a researcher in food anthropology and literature and founder of the "The Taste of Words" workshop, summed up the conversation to Raseef22 with the words, "My features relax when I cook or bake."

She says that she disconnects from reality when cooking and willingly immerses herself in a new dish to escape reality, or a problem that is troubling her, or even just to escape the pressures of life, and some sort of chemistry or reaction between her and food takes place. She also discovered that there were layers within herself that she needed to be liberated from, including the fact that she was afraid to try new things.

Being creative when it comes to cooking means you will get positive energy that'll boost your psychological and mental state, as it has been found that people who engage in creative activities such as writing, singing, and cooking, live happier lives

The same feelings were mentioned in a research paper published in Psychology Today that suggested that cooking could be one of the ways to help treat stress, anxiety, depression, eating disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

A mix of emotions and spices

Rania has experienced the mixing of emotions with spices, sounds, and smells emanating from the kitchen from a young age, as she has captured this artform from her grandmother, but her mother did not support her in this domain. She hoped one day to have her own kitchen and tools to unleash her culinary imagination.

Her grandmother was her first cooking teacher. She loved sitting next to the oven, preparing the dough, and baking it, then taking the hot fresh bread out of the oven. She used to watch her grandmother while sitting on the steps leading to the roof, as she made eggs with kishk and other dishes that have become etched in Rania's memory and taught her that cooking is an intimate act associated with good and positive emotions.

Two years ago, Rania launched her creative workshop "The Taste of Words" to motivate participants to express themselves, their feelings and emotions through cooking and baking in interesting creative texts. But she found that the workshop always took the path of therapeutic cooking, especially since one of the rituals of the workshop includes members exchanging memories and ideas they associate with food when they eat it together on a weekly basis.

She says, "This was not the goal of the workshop, but it became a goal that was being achieved during the workshop, as the intention was that cooking is an intimate act that will bring the participants closer to each other. I found that some, while expressing themselves through the cooking process, discovered psychological and mental traumas that they did not know existed until they talked about them, and that they were mainly related to cooking."

This led Rania to think about developing her workshop, and have a version of it just for “therapeutic cooking".

“Halet Wasl”

‘A cultural kitchen or a shared cooking space between individuals’. This is how Mai Hassan wanted her project “Halet Wasl" to be, a warm and welcoming space where attendees share and talk about various topics, but what Mai was most interested in was the exchange of emotions and values that people acquired during the shared cooking process.

Rania launched her creative workshop "The Taste of Words" to motivate participants to express themselves, their feelings and emotions through cooking and baking in interesting creative texts, but she found that the workshop always took the path of therapeutic cooking

Her belief in her project "Halet Wasl" – which means “cooking a dish to connect" – began 3 years ago, when she found that she was suffering from depression that came following an emotional breakup she went through. She suffered before and after the experience and could not perform the tasks she used to do inside the house.

To get out of that state, she used to attend – only through listening – some of the music training sessions that her friend was giving while she made cookies, and it made her feel a great sense of enjoyment. She became a part of them without speaking their language, and thus a state of love and warmth was created. Mai says, "They brought me back to the world after I couldn't distinguish people or colors.”

Then she began to realize that there was a problem, so she went to several doctors and was diagnosed with severe depression since childhood, and what helped her get out of that state was cooking because of its different colors, like mixing colored peppers. This was the concept from which the project was launched, and all the participants would come together to prepare a vegetable salad.

When Mai experienced the joy of cooking and the beautiful sensations she described having while cooking, she wanted people to experience the same feeling. She tells Raseef22, “I want people to experience the happiness that I have reached. Of course there are people who are tired and are unable to continue, and do not have the ability or energy to communicate, and I wanted to spread the idea and develop it.”

The idea popped up in Mai's head during the first "talking workshop" she attended in 2021. She presented it at the British Institute in Egypt, as well as at the Orange Corners business incubation programme and the "Rabeha for Women's Empowerment" program, each of whom welcomed and supported the idea, so she started working on it and developing it.

Mai believes that she is one of the 25% of people who are classified as introverts; people who cannot communicate with others in the traditional and familiar ways, so they prefer isolation instead of communication. The project also supports communication between isolated and introverted people in different ways, along with anyone who cannot speak in the familiar or known methods such as those with hearing and speech impairments, refugees, and expatriates.

This is how Mai wanted her project "Halet Wasl" to be, a warm and welcoming space where attendees share and talk about various topics, but she was most interested in the exchange of emotions and values that people acquired during the shared cooking process

Mai did not know about therapeutic cooking, but when she began reading about cooking, she learned that cooking helps apply the principle of "I am here, I am now". When a person is in a state of shock or has just come out of an abusive relationship, the therapist or doctor will try to apply this principle on them, so according to Mai, therapeutic cooking done in groups helps members pay attention, forget the sorrows of the past, and think about the future.

Men have a share too

Emotions associated with cooking are not exclusive to women, as some men believe that cooking has the ability to help them overcome negative emotions. One of these men is Akram (pseudonym), a young man in his thirties. Akram's story with cooking began when he wanted to find a way to remember his late mother. He has always saw food to be a form of communication between him and her, so he began to cook the foods she loved using her tools, in her own special way of cooking and the way she used to set the table.

It helped him transform the feeling of missing his mother into positive emotions, and as he succumbs to the mixture of aromas and colors during this process, he would feel close to her. Today, he can cook dozens of classic dishes such as meat, chicken, rice and stews, especially okra and moussaka, because they were his mother's favorites, and he is also skilled in cooking up new dishes of his own creation.

As for Mahmoud Abdel Salam, a 31-year-old who works as a content manager in Cairo, he had to learn cooking after having to live far from the family home back in Alexandria. But he says that later, cooking helped him overcome many negative feelings that he saw as a mixture of depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. According to his description, "His brain was cleared of all the negative thoughts that were crowding it”, and even if he is not hungry, preparing a simple pasta alfredo dish is always able to make him happy.

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