A lot of households have old copper or brass utensils stockpiled in store rooms and we’ve often wondered why we don’t use them anymore. Well, it’s because a few decades ago, the utensil market was taken by storm when one vessel entered the market with a bang and was here to stay. It was the stainless steel that a lot of us still use in our daily routine. It has become so versatile that we use it in everything, from cooking and storing food to storing drinking water. But before stainless steel filters and utensils, a lot of us remember having an earthen ‘matka’ in the kitchen, which was the source of bliss during hot and tiring summers (of course we had refrigerators, but matkas had their own charm).
Earthenware has been in India for almost 5,000 years now, used popularly in the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) era. Archaeologists have found remains of earthen pots and pans in the sites of the IVC. So, how does such an old technique still survive in India? How is it that the clay vessel has not become extinct?
Well the answer lies in our connection with the past, and the comfort we feel being attached to our roots. We have also mastered the use of some clay pots so well that it may not be possible to make our food without them anymore. For example, the only way you can serve a good firni is when the mixture is allowed to set overnight in a clay vessel. Otherwise, the dessert will not be as creamy and as firm as it should be. Similarly, dahi that is set in a clay vessel is much firmer than when it is left to set in any other vessel. This may be because the clay vessel absorbs excess moisture overnight and leaves a firm, tempting dish behind.
Earthenware has traditionally been used to cook, serve and store food much before brass, copper, tin and our favourite, stainless steel, were even available. Suzanne Staubach, in her fascinating book Clay, subtitled ‘The History and Evolution of Humankind’s Relationship with Earth’s most Primal Element’, argues that it was the development of clay pots and storage jars during the Stone Age “that ensured the healthful wellbeing of our species.”
Clay has been like a link to the past that we refuse to give up. For example, there are Gujarati mothers who swear by bread that is made on the earthen skillet. And, it’s not just in individual households; even restaurants these days are moving forward or rather back in time to discover the delicious taste that cooking in this material provides your dishes with. Restaurants like Lavaash by Saby in New Delhi have items in their menu cooked completely in earthenware and there is a tiny restaurant in Chennai called Manpaanai Samiyal Unavagam that serves food cooked and served in clay pots. Companies like Mitticool are innovating simple, old cookware to suit modern lifestyles, creating things like the non-stick skillet and clay pot pressure cooker.
We do find earthen utensils in some households, but most people now prefer using stainless steel due to its convenience and durability. Hear how stainless steel took our kitchens by storm and made a permanent place in our kitchens and our lives on this week’s The Real Food Podcast.