Why traditional utensils made of cast iron, copper, brass, clay, stone and bronze are making a slow comeback in Mumbai's modern kitchens
There were kitchens in Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro that had the kind of utensils as cookbook author Smita Deo's kitchen in Andheri. Forged in clay, stone, bronze, cast iron, copper and brass, they come from the deep bowels of the earth, and do look out of place in her "swanky, modern kitchen." Twelve years ago, when she shifted from a joint family into a nuclear setup, "I went and invested like a fool in all the modern non-stick wear," she says. But one day, she was making dosa and "in a non-stick, the dosa comes up on its own, it's crinkled like paper on the side and it's white in colour. So, it's not appealing to the eye. I told my mom that my dosas are not coming out well. She said, '[It's because of] these fancy gadgets. Just invest in a cast-iron pan.' The golden brown that comes on a cast-iron is amazing. So, it was time to slowly change my utensils." Within six months, she changed her kitchen to look as good as old.
Watch video of traditional utensils making a comeback here:
For actor, singer and COO of Native Spaces, a co-working space in Versova, 28-year-old Veera Saxena, the switch happened overnight. "My obsession started because of a Pinterest picture. I saw this kitchen, which had an open shelf with copper, clay and iron utensils. I was like, 'Why the hell doesn't my kitchen look like that?'" Luckily for her, in June this year, Native Spaces hosted an event on the use of native utensils.
"We were exhibiting the utensils, doing write-ups on it and had a panel discussion. We had to go into the history of why they work better than Teflon-coated utensils. So, I got clay pots and cast-iron kadhais, tawa and dosa tawa all at once. Through this process, I also found my grandmother's cast-iron paniyaram pans. I re-seasoned it and use it."
The move to traditional, indigenous utensils isn't just nostalgia; the food, they believe, actually tastes better. It's like the difference between drinking water from a clay pot and a plastic bottle.
IT professional Manjusha Pisharody, 41, who runs the blog Samagni on traditional Kerala recipes, and uses clay pots and cast-iron pans for cooking and kansa (bronze) plates for serving, says, "Back home in Kerala, we do have the habit of using earthen vessels. I started buying and including them for its health benefits, but the taste of the dishes is also preserved and enhanced." Deo, 46, who has written Karwar to Kolhapur via Mumbai, and is the face of two cooking shows, Get Curried and Ruchkar Mejwani, says, "You fry fish in a cast-iron pan, you'll come to know the difference. The fish is crisper.
Utensils from Kitch.in
In non-stick, it goes limp after a few minutes. I use clay pots for my stews and fish curries. I think the aroma that the mitti emits is very tasty and different." And, Saxena says, "The first thing I made in my cast-iron kadhai was stir-fry vegetables and fried rice and it really tasted like a Chinese restaurant fried rice. In the cast-iron, you get a smoky flavour, it retains heat very well and you can cook at very high temperatures. Each utensil has a unique flavour that it imparts to your food. Even parathas made on a cast-iron tawa are insane."
To explain this, Deo turns to her grandmother's wisdom. "My grandmom's ancestral home in Karwar had a beautiful, rustic kitchen. There was no electricity, no gas cylinders. So, everything was cooked on wood fire, water was drawn from the wells and the masalas were ground on the ragadas (stone grinders). Most houses had a kitchen garden and she used to make us go into the garden and pluck vegetables.
Priya Deepak, founder
When she used to make payasam, she would use freshly-pounded cardamom powder. She used to think, when you pound each spice, every individual cell is breaking and the oil is releasing. That time you don't think of these things, but since I'm now into cooking, I started realising that it really makes a difference. When you grind garlic in a mixie, it has a slightly bitter taste compared to when you [grind it] on a mortar and pestle or on a silbatta."
Deo gives us a taste of this in her kitchen. On a stone silbatta, she scoops grated coconut, raw mango, chopped onion, whole red chillies, lopped green chillies, ginger, a fistful of rice and coriander seeds and pounds them into submission. In a clay kadhai simmers coconut oil, ginger and onions, soon joined by pale-pink prawns and the light-saffron paste. The final dish is transferred to a kansa serving bowl. "Why do we eat in silver thalis?" she asks, as the aroma of her curry leaks into the air. "Because silver has a cooling effect on your body.
There were very simple reasons why our ancestors would eat in brass or silver thalis. When you cook in iron, there are properties of iron that get into your food." At her dining table, we insist we'll take only one helping, but end up spooning three. We don't know if it was the utensils or her cooking, but the mixed rice, prawn curry and tomato ka saar were among the most simple, wholesome and tenderly-cooked meals we have ever eaten.
When Smita Deo originally started buying indigenous utensils, she says, "I used to be petrified of using traditional material because who's gonna take care of it? But once I started using, I realised it's a piece of cake. After the cooking, wash the utensils with a mild detergent, put little oil, wrap it in paper and pat it dry." Most of her utensils come from her village in Karwar, though she's recently invested in utensils from Kitch.in, about which she says, "It's a dream to cook in them."
Originally launched as Village Fair in 2016, founder Priya Deepak, 46, renamed it Kitch.in last year, even though "the products, the philosophy and the operation remain the same." On her website, she sells kadhais, dosa pans, tawas, paniyaram pans, appam pans, idiyappam makers and puttu makers in cast iron, clay, bronze, brass, copper and bamboo. "Natural cookware needs seasoning," she says. "[When we launched], seasoned cookware was nowhere. So, we thought there was a gap in the market." Kitch.in is a one-stop solution. "You could pick up from our online store and immediately start cooking. It's fully seasoned cookware," she says.
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