Our grandmothers and theirs before them, knew the value of the materials of the vessels they cooked the food in, and so kept us healthy. They knew the precise metals the vessels should be made of, sometimes even for specific foods — in order to get the best of the mineral content and flavour into the foods. I don’t think there was any mineral deficiency back in those days thanks to those utensils, the method of cooking adopted and, of course, the wisdom of our elders.
Not just that, they also knew the intricate science of chemical reactions and which food should and shouldn’t be cooked in specific vessels to prevent the harmful effects. Brass and copper vessels react with organic acids and needed to be coated with tin. This was done periodically after the vessels were critically examined for the wearing-off of the coating.
Old timers would remember the kalaiwalas, who did this job. We used to love watching him at work. He would set up shop with a small coal fire and a pair of bellows to keep the flame alive and hot. He would touch a piece of pure tin on the hot vessel, sprinkle of ammonium chloride powder that made a dense white smoke and then gave a vigorous scrubbing and spread the molten tin with a wad of rags and Lo and behold! The dull inside shone like silver! He would then dunk the vessel in a bucket of water that made a lovely hissing sound. The white smoke added a touch of magic to the entire operation! Today these magicians exist albeit in their obscure workshops in big utensil markets, without the hordes of awestruck kids as avid audiences.
Traditional vessels were in use till the ‘70s, not just in my home, but in kitchens across the country. How many of you remember the utensils used when you were growing up? The handis, the heavy cast-iron kadhais, tawas and more?
My mother had a very heavy tawa, that was reportedly made from the metal that is used to make rail tracks. It glistened like silver when scrubbed with tamarind and scoured with ash. Then there was this long-handled cast-iron ladle (iluppai karandi), which was used to make the tadka. She poured the tadka into the sambar or rasam and then swirled it around. The idea was to get the iron content of the ladle into the dish! In addition to the mandatory vengala panai, which was a gun-metal vessel, there was this thicker, wide-mouthed one called uruli – also made of the same metal – which she made upma and sheera in. There were just a few stainless steel ones, which incidentally were known as ‘ever silver’ vessels, perhaps because they didn’t lose their sheen!
I have an amusing anecdote as a newly married, about the eeyachombu, which is traditionally used to make rasam in, as it imparts it a unique flavour. I have to mention in my defense that I had never used it before marriage and so had no idea as to the do’s and don’t’s of its handling.
Now, though it is called eeyachombu, (eeyam means lead in Tamil), it is made of an alloy of tin called velleeyam (white lead), which has a low melting point. To cut a long story short, the first time I put this vessel with all the ingredients for rasam on the gas burner, turned out to be the last. I was stirring something on the other burner, when there is a hissing sound and right before my eyes, the eeyachombu vanished! It really did!
With a sinking heart, I saw the pieces of tomatoes floundering like fish out of water in the spilled rasam and a blob of silvery metal amidst the mess! I had apparently broken the rule of not turning on the flame at high which had melted the eeyachombu. My mother-in-law never scolded me, bless her soul, but we never bought another one ☹ Today they are available for the price of several arms and legs but I am still not buying it!
There were other staples too:
Kitchens had gleaming brass and copper water pots stacked on top of the other. Today health experts advise people to ‘charge’ their water in copper vessels! Imagine, it was just a matter of routine to fill water in those back then. We drank water from mud pots and surahis which kept the water cool and fresh. First these were replaced by stainless steel pots and then with the easy to care for plastic buckets and pots, so out went health!
Earthenware vessels were also used by many households to cook food, especially in rural areas. They imparted the goodness of all the minerals that earth is loaded with, in addition to giving the food a wonderful earthy flavour. The kullad is another earthenware which is still used by street-corner chaiwalas.
Remember those large ceramic containers used for pickling? We used to call them ‘acid jars’. there were smaller containers for salt and tamarind too. Kept the food safe without chemicals leaching into it or causing reactions.
Then there were stone utensils which retained the heat for hours and were used for making special dishes of which, the kalchatti, (stone pot in Tamil) held a special place in the kitchen. Stone was also used extensively – to grind masalas and grains. We had the grinding stones that did the grinding for idlis and dosas and the sil-batta (ammi-kuzhavi) that ground masalas and chutneys. It was also used to hull and pound grains. A heavy log of smooth wood with a metal cap on one end was used for this. We also had this chakki – a two-piece grinding contraption which we used to grind dry grains. We have all but discarded these, save the sil-batta still being used in small towns and villages.
Remember the song from Bandini featuring the chakki and the pounding stone? More recently the film Namkeen has a song featuring the pounding too! Trust good old Bollywood songs to ‘preserve’ the memories of these beauties!
When the now dirt-cheap non-stick utensils first made their appearance in Indian homes in the 60s, they were touted as the best thing to hit the kitchens in terms of convenience and health (Less/no oil for cooking). Initially they were imported and cost a bomb and so largely remained objects of curiosity for the hoi-polloi, but with mass production in India, they began getting cheaper and many families including ours, went the non-stick-way.
All was hunky-dory till one fine day decades later, we were told that the coating used on these vessels is positively lethal. We woke up with a jolt and began scrambling – backwards in time, and how!
I wonder if this is a natural cycle or a subtly and carefully engineered ploy by manufacturers of modern utensils. They first marketed them as the solution to all our cooking problems and waited for us to swallow them hook, line and sinker and made them part of our daily lives. Once that was accomplished, they dropped a bombshell with ‘studies’ that trotted out facts and figures which say that the utensils are nothing short of lethal.
I am sure it was only after finding that their profits were going down at an alarming rate, due to massive mass production, that these ‘studies’ were conducted. They had to offer an alternative, right? So they began the marketing of our traditional metals and vessels in a designer avatar back to us! Once again these are targeted at the upwardly mobile, aware customers who know the benefits and also can afford the fancy prices.
Voila! They have made fools out of us and made their money in the bargain – not just once, but twice over! So why do we fall for their tricks? Human tendency? Lure of the latest fad?
At least the latest fad is going back-to-the-past, in terms of health.
Go on, climb up the attic/loft and pull out all those precious vessels gathering dust – that is, if you still have them. Or invest in them if you can afford them and ensure good health for your families.
The rest, (including me) will wait for the fad to pass and the prices to fall with mass production!
This post is a region-specific collection of utensils from my childhood and youth. Do share info about the utensils in other regions that were/are use in the comments to make the post comprehensive.