Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Food : April 30, 2000
Kitchenware of a bygone era
It seemed nothing short of a catastrophe that day. My Kenwood hand mixer would not work and I had this huge bowl of cream waiting to be churned into butter. The task could not wait and I hesitantly picked up the wooden butter churner that had been lying forgotten in a dark corner of my kitchen shelf. After that I never again used my electric mixer for my cream for the results of the slow action of the humble wooden churner has proved to be the more effective.
There is another reason too. Ridiculous as it might sound, the lowly wooden butter churner has become my nostalgic link to a well remembered past, when kitchen activity was a more leisurely affair. It brought back memories of holidays spent in ancestral homes, devouring huge quantities of tasty dishes in the delightful company of numerous cousins. Those were the times of firewood and charcoal stoves that burned for hours and cooked food slowly and aromatically making sure that lunch kept hot for hours after it was cooked. To a generation brought up on the ubiquitous pressure cooker and the gas stove it is difficult to explain how the embers of the dying stoves kept the rice soft and warm hours after they were cooked, or infused the ordinary dhals with a special aroma.
It is equally difficult to explain to the generation brought up on mass-produced plastic and stainless steel, that once not too long ago, each vessel had a specific role and to my grandmother and her contemporaries it was near sacrilege to use it otherwise.
The kitchen was, and still is the central part of a woman's life but the amount of time spent in the kitchen has reduced remarkably over the years. Indeed one feels the dying of a leisurely way of life, most, in the context of the kitchen. The woman then cooked or supervised the cooking for the greater part of the day. Naturally she also entertained in the kitchen discussing everything from the materialistic to the philosophical as she made her innumerable pickles, appalams and powders. Her power was absolute here and she prided herself on her culinary abilities. At her reach were vessels of varied shapes and materials and in her search for perfection she had earmarked each form of utensil as the best suited for a particular preparation or need.
Terracotta vessels were used for cooking in some homes but they were mostly used for storing water. The simple undecorated earthern pots kept water cool through the hot summer months. Centuries of design had perfected the contours of the water pot to suit the curves of women's waists or stay balanced on heads that carried water from wells and tanks. Wide rounded bodies ending in tapered mouths kept spillage of precious water to a minimum.
Next to clay, metal was most commonly used for domestic purposes. India has a huge body of beliefs about the effects of various metals and minerals on the body and it was naturally felt that food cooked in various metals absorbed certain trace minerals and elements beneficial to health. Gold was the prerogative of the princes but a number of middle class homes used silver especially for vessels meant for eating and drinking. Copper and brass, however, remained the more common of the metals used. Emphasising beautiful lines and shapes rather than ornamentation these utensils came in varied sizes and shapes to suit varied functions. Unlike modern day mass produced vessels that have no special identity India's rich handicraft tradition made each region develop its special designs in metal. And even in each region no two objects could be totally similar. For even within the rigidity of a design there was scope for innovation and so ennui with a particular pattern hardly crept in.
Charakku, a cauldron for cooking payasam. Bronze, C. 17th century, Kerala. Single cast using lost wax process. Crafts Museum, New Delhi.
As copper became increasingly limited to water containers and ritualistic objects, brass - an alloy of copper and zinc, became the most preferred form of metal in the kitchen. Mirzapore, Moradabad, Varanasi, Pune, Ahmedabad and Punjab all emerged as centres of excellent brass vessels. The capacity of brass for efficient heat conduction, heat retention and belief in its apotropaic qualities coupled with the ease of working with the metal made it a popular choice. Brass lent itself well to the varied shapes that were needed to suit the demands of differing methods of cooking.
The andas were the most common in the kitchens of yesteryears. With their coating of tin kalai that was meant to protect the acidic properties of the food reacting to the metal, these brass vessels gleamed under the discerning glance of the mistress of the house who had them scoured and polished after every use. Besides the vessels used on the fire each household had innumerable others that were used for the preparation of the food. Sieves, graters, spoons and ladles, oil containers and containers of every form were all part of a kitchen's brass collection. Today's stainless steel tries a replication of these designs that the traditional craftsman had evolved over ages. Unfortunately the warmth and beauty of the mellow glow of brass can never be truly replaced.
While brass vessels were the mainstay of grandmother's kitchen the pride of place belonged to the varpadam, that genre of bell metal vessels that were made in Kerala, Assam and Bengal. This gorgeous metal is seen best in simple shapes where its golden tint gleams with a beautiful effect.
Award winning measuring cup design in stainless steel from Germany, 1999.
Made with a combination of 70 per cent copper and 30 per cent tin in Kerala the bell metal is best seen in the Varppu and the Urali. The Urali is today prized for an aesthetic design-that was circular and broad based with sides curving out perfectly to end in a gentle lip. Graceful handles completed the picture.
However it was not aesthetics alone that made it popular for the heavy metal of the Urali lent itself to milk dishes. The famous Paal Payasam could be made easily with no fear of getting burnt.
In Bengal the design and shape of bell metal utensils formed an independent school of craft. Evolved by the loving touch of generations of master craftsmen the Kansa alloy utensils, made of seven parts of copper and one part of tin, were beautifully proportioned and shaped with a simple and stark elegance. Resistant to tarnish they made excellent cooking and serving dishes.
While use of brass and bell metal has declined, the use of stoneware for cooking has definitely vanished. The kal chatti was once an indispensable part of the kitchen. That pungent vatha kuzambhu or the tasty aromatic pulikachal could only be made in a kal chatti. Indeed, anything else that needed a bit of oil like pickles, was made in these stone vessels. Absorbing the oil, these porous softstone vessels retained the flavour of the preparation for days after.
Traditional measures from Rajasthan, bronze, Sanskriti Museum of Everyday Art.
Along with the kal chatti, the iya pathiram made of tin is also on its way out. Most gourmets would swear that rasam can taste good only if made in it. Like many a new bride I have also watched with horrified eyes as my mother-in-law's prized iya pathiram melted away before my eyes, while mentally blaming my mother for not having warned me that tin melts under excessive heat. Finally many iya pathirams later, thanks to uncaring cooks and the heat of gas stoves, I have reluctantly stopped spending on this expensive vessel. Rasam has never tasted the same again.
Coffee served in silver tumblers, water stored in matka pots, rasam made in tin vessels, vatha kuzambu in kal chattis, all these and more have become things of a more gracious past.
Today, the multifaceted woman demands a maintenance free, hassle free kitchen and a style of cooking that takes up very little of her time. With stainless steel emerging as the sole metal most of the vessels that were used then have either been consigned to the smelting pot or have become decorative items in aesthetically done up interiors. That these simple kitchen equipment could now become objets d'art , coveted by the dealers and the affluent says a lot for India's art and craft culture that imbued mundane and everyday kitchen equipment and utensils with a rare aesthetic quality. One can only hope that other forms of demand would emerge that would save these designs from ending up as mere show pieces in craft museums.
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