When utensils were a source of health

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.

Once in daily use, now in museums! (Courtesy: CPR Foundation)

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?

Upmas made in these urulis tasted yum!

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!

The precious eeyachombu. Courtesy: Amazon.in

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.

The large ones at the back were known as ‘acid jars’!

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.

The trusty sil-batta (courtesy: mesubim)

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.

18 comments

  1. […] is traditionally made in a vengala panai but most of us these days make it in a pressure cooker. Of course, we decorate the cooker or any […]

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  2. Well, this is not only for the utensils but in every other way true. Take organic food, for example. Organic food is nothing but natural food, like how it was grown originally. Now we pay twice the price to buy organic stuff only to find out that we should not have switched to chemical grown ones in the first place. Same with vessels – they are considered antique now and are so expensive now. I have always felt that the mushroom masala that my mom makes in the irumbu kadai (iron tava) has the best taste in the world.

    Hmm, so much for the modern world. We try out all the new things only to find out our Indian culture and tradition had it right in the first place.

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  3. You brought back memories for everyone. In my childhood we used to have vessels with some alloy called phool in Hindi. It was sturdy but heavy so when steel cane we lapped it up. Even in marriages food was served on leafplates called pattal and earthen bowls

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    1. I have never heard of this alloy, Renu! My friend Suman has mentioned panchdhatu vessels too. I guess someone should help me with information of such traditional vessels used in the northern regions of the country. Plantain leaves and pattals went out of use due to the lack of cows and other cattle who ate them all up! Nowadays we have steel and plastic plates even in marriages.

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  4. Neeru Tiwari · · Reply

    This is very interesting trip of memory of my childhood days, my grandmother used to cook. Most of the vegetables in thick iron Kadai, dal Ina heavy brass pot she used to store water in copper vessels. The delicious aroma and flavour of that food still there in my memor. Cyber nag your way of putting things is unique and very interesting to read. This posti am sharing with my son also

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    1. Nice to see you here, Neeru and thanks for the compliments and the share 🙂 You know, I am thinking here that we are grandmothers ourselves and yet our memories of these vessels go back to our grandmothers’ times! That means it has been two/three generations already since these metals went out of regular use. Our mothers used some too, but not for regular cooking, right? Of course, we stored water in brass and copper pots for many years. Hope your son liked the post and enjoyed the pics 🙂

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  5. Thanks for the many lovely memories promped by your post, Zephyr!

    For many years, I used to set curds in an earthenware container. However I accidently broke it, and could not find one of a similar size in any of the nearby shops. Apparently, no one uses them any more!
    Unless they are ‘designer’ ones, of course, in which case too costly for me! 😏

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    1. I am glad that this post has triggered warm memories for all my readers.

      So your earthen bowl went my eeyachombu way! Though in my case, I was a newbie in the house and couldn’t make decisions like buying a new one. My MIL must have decided (wisely) not to risk another one with me in the kitchen 😀

      Yes, I am also not about to sell my arm or leg to buy any designer cookware no matter how healthy! My niece tells me that the place to buy earthenware is in rural areas. We can try that.

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  6. Such a lovely post Zephyr! A BIG  thank you  for the kalaiwala video.  I just LOVED to watch the kalaiwala… like you did. My mother did not use any brass utensils so I was always on the lookout to see if one of the neighbors stopped the kalaiwala. Or I got a treat when I visited my nani’s home at Indore. Ah! Happy memories!

    I am still using an aluminium  pressure cooker,  which according to the latest ‘studies’,  is the worst possible thing to cook your food in.  Alas!

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    1. I was so happy to see the video too 🙂 I never got tired of watching those kalaiwalas and used to wonder how they didn’t burn their hand in the hot vessel as they spread the tin around. Hope you also liked the song from Bandini!

      You are only using an aluminum cooker! I am still using non-stick and the microwave. I guess I am condemning my family to eternal bad nutrition 😀

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  7. Nice and interesting post. I remember in my nani and dadi’s house water was stored in bronze and copper vessels. Food was served in bronze plates and bowls, and to drink water bronze or copper glass were used .
    All the sukhi sabzis were made in iron kadai, even I use iron kadai to make sabzi.
    Pickles were kept in ceramic jars and after cooking sabzis were immediately transferred to ceramic bowls.
    I have also heard about panchadhatu kadai made with five metals gold, silver, copper, iron and zinc.
    Food cooked in panchadhatu vessels are good for health and are rich in micronutrients. .

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    1. Even thinking about all those vessels make my arms ache sometimes! The brass and copper vessels used to be so hard to scour and clean and my mother wouldn’t be satisfied unless the brass shone like gold and copper like red gold 🙂 You must remember the ash and coconut husk we used and how difficult it used to be to scour vessels! Some specialty food restaurants use copper glasses to serve water and bronze plates. I would love them, but if I had enough space to store them and someone to shine them 😀

      I have neither heard of nor seen panchadhatu vessels. I am sure it must be very beneficial to eat in them. Thank you for such an interesting comment, Suman!

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  8. You took me too, back to my younger days. I too used to store water in brass and copper pots. Pickle was stored in peenagaan jaadis, sometimes salt also in open jaadis. My grand mother used to keep curd in jaadi, churn it in the morning to take out butter…I can still feel the taste of butter and buttermilk of those days

    Men and children were given coffee and milk in silver cups/tumblers so that they can sip and drink…saliva is achooth:)

    Kalchatti was in use in our house also, but eeya chombu was not (I am from Udupi, maybe they didn’t use them but after marriage saw it and tasted rasam made in eeya chombu!). I make arisi upma and pongal in uruli often even now!

    All my brass vessels come down during dhivasam! Got them tinned (is the expression right?) some 10 years back near my old house! I have got copper and brass kudams but use them only during homams.

    I think twice before using non-stick tava even now. Use it for making rava dosa sometimes, otherwise only iron tava for rotis and dosas.

    It was nice reading about old times in your post (I always love to read your posts, by the way!) which triggered my memories and a long post-like comment is here! Thank you, Zephyr!

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    1. And I love your long comments, Sandhya 🙂 You share so much information in them and make them interesting. I stopped using all the various metals and materials as we were shifting houses and cities so often. I didn’t fancy breaking them and so either gave them away or sold them off. I guess you didn’t shift so many houses as I have! Yet I’m so impressed that you still cook in brass vessels for shraddhams! I guess I should be abashed, about using non-stick/marbleware, but I am not. For me, convenience scores now, though I do long to use a cast-iron tawa for dosas.

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  9. That was a lovely trip down the memory lane in the. classic Zephyr style! I consider myself blessed to have seen alll of it and have myself used many of them😃

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    1. We belong to the older generation Rahul! 🙂 Anyway, some youngsters today are shining these old vessels and putting them up as showpieces in their drawing rooms, a la specialty restaurants 😀 And others have begun using them too.

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  10. Brought back old memories of my younger days.The brass vessels including silver vessels and a brass boiler used to be part of the things newly married girls took with them.You have I think left out the brittle kalchatti made of a stone.

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    1. Oh yes! Those days even cooking for shraddham used to be done in brass vessels, so it was mandatory in a girl’s gifts. We had a copper boiler at home. Some people had installed an electrical heating element and continued using it, but I think that would have been risky in terms of shocks if touched by accident, right? And I have mentioned kalchattis too, KP 🙂

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