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I got married into a super sized joint family. My father-in-law and his brothers live in adjacent houses. Mostly each family has one son living with parents and another working outstation, far or near. The non-resident branches of all families travel home for Diwali celebrations each year.
Few years ago during Diwali holidays, homes were abuzz with full strength and festival cheer. Every member had worked energetically for hectic days of Diwali. By the time the last two holidays arrived, the steam ran out and they all were tired, sick of eating sweets, and fried food. Everyone longed for some change.
It was a cold evening of North Indian November before the last holiday. Women of the family, young or old wanted to relax too. They were dreading the next morning; working with tap water was a punishment. Sitting lazily outdoors, basking in the warm sun was all they wished to do. The men teased them- they had got too lethargic. Wives jokingly dared them to try cooking for a day, to know how tough it was. With so many people fuelling the fire, this friendly banter got a bit too far. One of the cousins accepted the challenge. Albeit reluctantly one by one other comrades joined too. They agreed to cook lunch next day.
Our family group comprised of grandparents, young couples and several children from newborns to early teens. Cooking for sixty people was not going to be easy. The load of the task made the air heavy. My husband’s uncle suggested a concise menu of Sarson saag (mustard leaves curry) and Makke ki roti (corn breads). The women enjoyed the commotion and prompted the menfolk to show their best. At this the older gentleman tipped the boys to use Mitti ki Handi (clay pot) on a Chulah (clay stove). Our boys bit the bait and announced they would make the saag in a Handi and Chulha, the traditional way.
Anticipation and enthusiasm became infectious and began to grip everyone. In preparation of the next day, Chulha and Handi were bought along with firewood and charcoal. A detailed list of requirements was prepared with the help of the grandmothers’ gaggle. A pair of cousins paid a visit to the grocer for dry ingredients.
Early morning next day, another team set out for the sabzi Mandi to buy freshest leafy provisions. Huge bags of wintergreens mustard leaves, spinach, fenugreek, coriander etcetera arrived. Post breakfast the men assembled in the common lawn area of our house to survey the situation. Ladies relented and offered to help with cleaning and chopping. Everyone enjoyed a 'wedding in the family' kind of atmosphere. Sitting together sorting the greens, they chatted heartily. Senior women recounted how they began their culinary careers, learning to light the Chulah fire. Cooking in the clay pot however was a first for them, building up the anticipation for all alike.
Meanwhile in the lawns, after an hour of tricks, suggestions, arguments and discussions, the brothers managed to light the Chulah. Soon the ambers smoldered to a bright red glow and flames leapt up like several tongues of the hungry fire God Agni. All drew nearer to warm their chilled, soot covered hands. One of the brothers, better accomplished at the culinary art, took charge of the ladle. It was time to load the Handi.
Heaps of greens lay in massive containers lined beside the chulah. To the men it seemed impossible, how a two feet diameter pot could accommodate all that. Their naivety amused our mother in laws' combine. They assured that it was quite enough, the boys just needed to begin the process. Chopped greens were filled to the brim of the warming Handi. Within minutes the leaves wilted with the heat and created space for more. They went on adding the cut up leaves, black gram lentils, curd and a combination of fresh and dry condiments. The Handi devoured them all like a hungry demon and asked for more.
As predicted the enormous containers soon vanished and only the Handi, wafting delicious aromas remained to simmer our main dish. For four hours the magic potion broiled in the clay cauldron. Everyone gathered around the contraption. Rounds of carrots, tomatoes, radishes and cucumbers were chomped up with draughts of buttermilk. Nobody had any agenda but to wait for the slow cooking process to finish. It gave us ample opportunity to enjoy a lazy afternoon we had desired.
Ultimately the delectable Saag did get ready, it was creamy smooth and smelled heavenly. Our men generously topped it with dollops of butter to make it as appetizing as possible. Sixty people had the meal of a lifetime. The saag indeed turned out the best everyone had ever had. Pickle, jaggery and lots of leg pulling added to the flavours of the day. For hours every one enjoyed the most economic and enjoyable picnic there could be. We had had combined meals earlier too, but never had eaten a saag as irresistible as that. Each family member thanked the men for a wonderful treat. It became our yearly tradition thereafter.
I remember my husband asked me that evening, "Does the Handi really make a difference or is it just our perception?" He often gives his researcher wife such theories to test. As always I began my reading. What I found I would love to share with you all.
Old-fashioned cooking methods have made a comeback in kitchens and restaurants around the world. Cooking with earthenware pots is an ancient tradition of India that offers distinct taste and preserves nutritional value of food. The porous nature of earthenware allows for slow and even cooking, while retaining the natural juices in food. This makes the flavours of all the ingredients to slowly blend together and create fuller flavours and enhanced aroma. Slow cooking in a handi imparts a delicious earthy flavour to the food.
Clay pots are alkaline in nature so they mix well with acidic food to perfectly balance out the PH level of what you cook, making it healthier. Cooking in clay pots is said to impart Calcium, Phosphorus, Iron, Magnesium, sulphur and several other micro compounds to food that benefit our body.(same as iron from the Karahi in Reverse Evolution.) Foods that are naturally acidic acquire some natural sweetness, like tomatoes when cooked in earthen pots give the food a wonderful taste. Try setting curd in a mitti ki handi and set another batch in another vessel. Drink your tea from a kullahad, you will instantly know the difference. These are perfect for milk products.
A clay pot with a lid doesn’t allow vapours to escape. The food soaks and gets cooked in its natural juices. The steam that circulates throughout cooking, provides plenty of moisture and eliminates the need for adding extra fats or liquids. Clay pot food has less fat and calories. Baked clay cookware is affordable and safe for almost all types of cooking. You can use it to bake, braise, grill, brown, and to serve hot and cold foods. It is safe to put into a microwave. Almost any basic recipe can be easily adapted for clay pot cooking.
Earthenware has high heat retaining capability. All foods are cooked at low to medium heat, using half the energy. You can turn off the stove few minutes earlier before your food is fully cooked and residual heat will finish cooking the meal. Clay loses heat slowly so keeps food warm longer.
Avoid using glazed pots. If the lead based glaze on utensils is not properly formulated or fired, lead can leach from it and enter the food inside the pot. Lead is considered to be among the most toxic metals that can significantly affect people’s health. Unglazed earthenware made from tested pure clay is 100% non-reactive or inert.
I shared with my husband what I had learned. The incident that began as a battle of sexes, lead our family to a serendipity- the mystic of Clay pot cooking. This slow cooking had cast a sort of spell and retarded the passage of time. It gave everyone an opportunity to connect and enjoy.
I suggest you try it on a lazy holiday. Earthenware works well enough on a normal gas stove too. Treat your family to the luxury of delicate gastronomic flavours and a relaxed joyous holiday.
(Please feel free to forward to your family and friends. Let them discover the forgotten secrets of clay pot cooking.)