We all have fond memories of food cooked by our mum, grandmas or aunts. My grandma (Amma) was a fabulous cook. My grandma also had the most beautiful rustic kitchen in our ancestral home in Aversa, Karnataka. It was a longish kitchen with a mud stove, where food would be cooked on wood fire. Just above the stove there was a small window that worked like a chimney.
The beautiful sparkling brass, copper and steel utensils would be standing proudly on the wooden shelves near the stove. Small brass containers filled with ingredients required for daily use like coffee, tea, sugar closer to the stove. Masalas and batters would be ground on a ragda (stone grinder) and spices would be pound on a khal batta (motar and pestle). Her food would always taste divine.
The smell of the wood fire would bring a beautiful smoky aroma to the dish. Today when I travel to quaint villages in India and I smell food cooked on wood fire, its nostalgic. I always wondered, why the smoke from the wood fire remind me of Amma’s food? The answer to this I found which I must share with you was that, the burning of wood breaks its cellulose, which releases two chemical compounds that excite our sensation to smell to detect unique taste and smell. The experience of something being flavorful is a combination of taste and smell.
When Amma would visit us in the city she would bring a lot of goodies along with her, some raw ingredients as well. Mum a great cook herself would cook them just they way Amma would make it but there was always a difference in the flavors and Amma would always attribute it to the latest gadgets that would make cooking fast and easy, or the newer variety of utensils one was using. Though mum always stuck to cast iron, brass and clay utensils. I guess the water in the city would also alter the change in the taste, but Amma always had her fixed thoughts and it was difficult to convince her otherwise. She would always insist on using the age old methods of cooking, giving her reasons, which I totally agree with today.
A few years back, I shifted to new home with modern interiors with a beautiful modular kitchen. The utensils I bought were also the kind that would suit the kitchen, mostly the pretty looking, colorful, non – stick cookware. The food would get cooked easily with less oil and also initially I thought it was easy to maintain. I changed my mind quiet soon about that, as sometimes by mistake the cook would use a metal spoon to stir and then oops a scratch would be seen and then it has to be simply thrown away.
We at home love hot, crisp dosas and can have them for any meal. On the weekend the menu is usually a spicy masala dosa with sambar and chutney. I got out my non stick dosa pan very happily and excited to spread the dosa batter and looked forward to some crips, golden dosas. But the outcome was not exactly what I had expected. The dosa was white as if white washed even after keeping on the tava for a little longer than usual smearing it with oil and crinkled on the edges and it looked so unappealing. The excitement was over in no time.
Disheartened I called my mum and she tried talking to me about switching over to the old traditional utensils. Honestly I was not very receptive to that initially as seasoning, brass, copper and cast iron utensils seemed like a task and then the thought of maintaining by regularly seasoning them just scared me as most of us don’t have the time and energy for all this with all that we do to survive in the city.
Exactly a week later, mum came over home to see how settled we were and she bought a cast iron tava along with her as a small gift from her end. That was the best gift I could have received. She had called for it from the village and had seasoned it by washing it with a mild soap, wiped it dry and simply coated it with a thin layer of oil and left it in the sun for 24 hours. Repeated the process for three days and voila! The pan was ready to be used. The next time dosas turned out just like the way I love, crisp, golden and thin as paper.
This experience made me think of changing my non stick cookware to the age old traditional ones. I didn’t do it over night by slowly and steadily over six months I managed to replace most of the non stick utensils.
So, at first I bought a cast iron kadhai, seasoned it the same as mum had and the first recipe I cooked in that was a chicken sauted in a masala with onions and spices. The outcome was amazing to look at and tasted delicio.
Cooking in the cast iron kadai was great, the masala would get bhunoed (sauted) evenly as cast iron heats evenly and the masala would get the perfect brown color and the food would cook evenly and quiet quickly. By now I was throughly enjoying cooking with this new introduced piece of equipment and soon I realized it was time to move on further.
I went one day to matunga market and bought a clay utensil to cook our traditional stew and curries. After googling on the internet and getting confused with all the different ways, as usual, mum came to the rescue.She told me to collect all the starch water from the cooked rice which I would usually drain off and soak the clay pots in that for three days. On the third day she told me to wash it with mild detergent, dry it in the sun for a few hours and then coat it with oil and place it on the stove and heat it on a low flame for an hour and then fill it with oil and fry bhajiyas and lo! The clay pot was good to be used. The prawn curry that I cooked in that got me many compliments from my foodie family. After the successful attempt cooking in a cast iron kadhai and a clay pot, there was no looking back. The adventures in the kitchen were getting very interesting and exciting.
I frequently travel to Pune a city 150 km away from Mumbai and I love visiting Tulshi baugh, a market place which has quaint small stores that sells a variety of unique as well as traditional cooking equipment’s and many other things. My cook at home would always tell me amazing stories of food which always had the mention of grinding the masala on the stone.I went there with an intension to buy a pata varvanta (stone grinder) and grind masala’s on that. The old gentleman who I bought it from was quiet a unique character suiting the place. He was quiet surprised to see me enquiring about the various sized stone grinders that he was exhibiting, as my appearance didn’t make him believe that I would use one, let alone use it but he also seemed to have a doubt if I even knew how to use one. He assumed I was going to keep it as a prop and so was trying to sell me a not so good one till I sternly explained to him I needed to use it.
He figured I was serious and slowly started telling me how to cure it before I used it. He told me to wash it, soak it in water for 5 days. Wash clothes on it after that! I was like who the hell washes clothes on a pata varvanta!! He calmly told me one needs to do that to get rid of the impurities and the tiny grains of stone that are loose on the flat platform and after grinding some soaked rice he said I could use it freely. Well I did exactly what he told me and when the pata varvanta was good to be used I ground a coconut based masala for a okra curry. It was not just fun grinding on it but the flavor of the curry was different and way better. This was because when you grind in an electric grinder the heat that is produced alters the flavor of the ingredients. I remembered my grandma telling mum that garlic ground to a paste in an electric grinder is probably making the garlic taste a bit bitter vs pounding it to a paste on the stone or motar and pestle. Well she was right.
Recently I made a dhaba chicken curry using techniques like pounding the spices and the aroma of the curry was all over the home, which was mouth watering. Basically the pounding of the spices had broken each cell of the spice releasing its aroma and the oil secreted enhanced its flavor and so the curry was truly a great hit at my home.
I never had thought a slight change in the methods and equipment for cooking would bring out such fabulous results. Cooking has always made me happy and feeding my loved ones satisfying, but the use of traditional cookware has enhanced my cooking even further and that pleasure cannot be described! So when are you all planning on taking the plunge
Here is a recipe of a crab curry cooked in a brass utensil (you can use chicken or mutton as an option)
10 crabs cleaned / 1 kg mutton or chicken
3 onions sliced
1 large onion finely chopped
1 1/2 cups of grated fresh coconut
1 1/2 cup of grated dry coconut
2 tbsp of malvani garam masala powder (available in any grocery store, if not a regular garam masala is an option)
4 tbsp oil
1 tbsp ginger and garlic paste each
Salt to taste
1- Heat a cast iron pan and sauté the sliced onions till golden and then add the fresh coconut and fry till slightly brown and finally add the dry coconut and roast till the mixture turns a nice brown. Cool and grind to a fine paste.
2- Heat the oil in a brass vessel and add the oil. Once the oil is hot add the chopped onions and sauté till the onions are soft yet pink and then add the ginger, garlic paste and sauté till the raw smell has gone.
3- Add the malvani masala and the crabs / mutton / chicken and sear it on a high flame for 3-4 minutes
4- Add the ground onion coconut paste and mix well. add 2 liters of water and salt and cover and cook (crabs for 15 minutes and the meats till done).
5- Serve hot with chapatti or bhakri or any bread of your choice