Continuing the story of cooking aids from the first part: When utensils were a source of health, I take you back in time when urban homes used stoves that were more rustic and used fossil fuels for burning. These have mostly disappeared from cities and towns today.
But the nostalgia content is limited to the memories unlike the vessels of yesteryear, which had numerous health benefits. In fact the stoves had more drawbacks than benefits. For one, they used fossil fuels, which meant that they generated smoke and other toxic fumes, especially in small and poorly ventilated kitchens. Perhaps that was why these were often used in the open courtyard of houses instead of inside. However, it was not always possible, especially in houses in the towns and cities. Wood that was not completely dry didn’t burn well and smoked a lot. Blowing into the hearth to get the fire going was a painful process. The result was a smoky and oppressively hot kitchen.
But I am running ahead of myself. Let us begin at the beginning:
The three-stone-wood fired-stove, along with the wheel are unique – for they are still used in the original form they were conceived by man – millennia after their invention. The materials and designs might have undergone changes over the millennia, but the design of the basic ‘stove’ still stands. Recognise the picture below? How many of us have seen or even used this contraption at some point in our lives?
Even today nomads and migrant workers use such stoves to cook their food. Campers, mountaineers and travellers into the wilderness – all use them. Sleek and stylish variations of the stove using smokeless alternatives are used by many urban households even today, in their gardens and terraces for barbecues or a spot of outdoor cooking.
Not just this rudimentary cooking stove, but its upgraded versions using various materials graced urban Indian households till the 70s. An astonishing statistic tells us that nearly 50% of the world population still uses stoves that consume solid fuels like wood, coal and biomass pellets. There is a continuing effort the world over, to improve stove designs to increase efficiency and eliminate or reduce the harmful gases and smoke.
Here I am sharing my own journey from wood chulhas to LPG stoves, with other stoves in between. I am sure many of the older generation remember at least a couple of the stoves I have discussed.
It was not uncommon for households back then typically to use more than one kind of stove to cook their meals, just as they used different types of materials for their utensils depending on whether they needed fast or slow cooking. Though the designs of the chulhas steadily improved in design and style, the fuel was almost the same for all of them – assorted pieces of wood – some of them even two feet long, leaves and cow dung cakes.
The clay and mud chulhas were among the first ones I remember. They had an opening at the front through which wood was fed to heat the pot or vessel placed on top.
If one were to look at the early designs, one would be amazed at the ingenious designs that made the optimum use of fuel and energy. Mind you, they were not designed by engineers or experts in fuel management, but ordinary folk.
Take this chulha above for instance. It has two (as this one) and sometimes even three stove tops that can hold vessels and pots of varying sizes. The heat is transmitted through a flue from the main to the subsidiary burners (for want of a better word). The main one holds the largest pot, which needs the maximum heat and the others, that are connected by a flue, that transmits heat to the subsidiary burners, are used to simmer or heat food, as the heat is less. So while a pot of rice is cooking on the main burner, the others could be used to heat milk or cook a subzi, or maybe simmer a dal or sambar. They could deftly switch the pots and pans to distribute the heat and get the best results. We had this one in our village home, where my parents lived for some years after Father’s retirement.
But the kitchen often got smoky if the wood was damp or didn’t burn well. Also, soot covered the vessels and the kitchen walls. It was hard for the womenfolk who had to suffer the heat and smoke, watery eyes and dry mouth. Houses with a backyard sometimes had these chulhas outside or at least in a back verandah that eliminated a part of the smoke and heat. A metal pipe was used to blow air to fan the flames. An improved design with a chimney eliminated the smoke, but still it was a cumbersome form of cooking.
It is commendable that the government has taken decisive steps to eliminate these by providing LPG connections to BPL families, notably in the rural areas. About 8 crore families across the length and breadth of the country have benefited by the Ujjwala Yojana till date.
Coming back to the stoves, a better version came in the form of sigri/angeethi/kumutti. They were made of cast iron or were fashioned out of mud and had a grate, which held coal or charcoal briquettes and were lit with kindling from under it through a front opening. We had switched over to these, even before my birth, as they used coal instead of wood and were easier to care for, not smoky and were portable–more suitable to city homes.
The charcoal briquettes or kande were more heat efficient and were preferred instead of coal. These were store-bought initially, but since they were expensive we began making them at home. We mixed fine coal pieces with bits of straw and bound with cow dung. It was a weekly chore for us to mix the ingredients in the right proportion and then make balls out of them to be dried. The chore included sourcing cow dung too. Oh, the kind of chores we had to do back then!
We used the kumutti – a round cast iron coal-fired stove with a grate and an opening at the bottom. It was the south Indian equivalent of the metal angeethi, which our Maharashtrian landlady downstairs used. These stoves were lit with some straw or a piece of dung soaked in kerosene which was burnt at the opening at the bottom. We had several kumuttis in varying sizes. We used coal/kande, which had to be arranged evenly to hold the utensil firmly without tilting and spilling the contents on the burning embers.
Mother used to make her own clay and mud sigri, fashioned out of an old zinc bucket – another of the vanished old-world items that was used for washing clothes and fetching and storing water — as plastic had not yet come on the scene. She made a small opening at the bottom to feed the kindling. She then kneaded clay, which we dug from the garden and ‘built’ the inner walls, smoothing the surface and fixed a grate that she had salvaged from an old angeethi. Once the mud walls dried, they got a coat of cow dung. This gave the angeethi further durability. It used to be fascinating to see her at the job – this woman who had not studied beyond the 3rd standard, precisely measuring, cutting and building the sigri which could give a store-bought one a run for its money in terms of design and precision! She was a great artiste and artisan, rolled into one – my mother!
The angeethi was a workhorse and the entire cooking could be done on it, including the phulkas that puffed up perfectly on the bluish flame of our handmade kande!
Once the cooking was done, whether on the angeethi or the kummuti, the flame was doused with a sprinkling of water and the bigger pieces of unburnt coal were removed and dried for future use. The ash was collected and sifted to remove the small bits of coal, which was again used for making kande. We used the fine ash to scour the vessels. Not a scrap of anything was wasted. While the kumutti was washed, the sigri got a fresh layer of cow dung mixed with a little water. We made small rangolis on it, so that when it was lit the next morning, it looked new and festive. This was because cooking was equated with puja and so had to be worshipped thus!
The kerosene stove in its various avatars had come into regular use by the turn of the 60s. There was the wick-stove that burned on kerosene but the heat was low and it turned the vessels black with soot. In this respect, the ‘pressure stove’ or the Primus stove, scored better, as it burned with a blue flame and generated more heat. This stove did duty till we switched to LPG gas stoves in the early 70s and even after that for many years along with the kumutti, as the supply of gas was erratic with a long waiting period between refills. It was only after the availability of the second cylinder that they finally made their exit from the kitchens.
Today I regret not having had the foresight to preserve at least one kumutti if not the sigri and angeethi. They would have been collectors’ items now!
Three-stone-stove: Low-tech Magazine