In days of yore, each utensil in a kitchen had a specific purpose.

On the Internet or in a book shop, we find dozens of recipes. Somewhere in them is a reference to a grandmother’s kitchen. It is wonderful to recreate the recipes of the past but very little mention is made of the vessels that were used to cook them.

Those days, cooking was amongst the greatest acts of devotion and it started with the clay oven being washed and decorated with a kolam followed by a a prayer. Women from earlier generations, were themselves expert potters and could make the clay stove. The slow cooking using firewood and other organic ingredients, and the loving attention, lent a unique aroma to the food, something the best chef of today cannot often capture! The vessels were just as important.

Different dishes

Vessels for cooking and storing came in sets or as single pieces. The taller kuthu adukku and the wider aria adukku came in sets of three or more of varied heights. The mooku chatty was used to serve rasam and had a little spout. Rasam was cooked in an iyyam or lead chombu, a wide bottomed but spherical vessel with a narrow mouth. The kothu chatty comprised four cups fused in the middle with a serving handle, used for serving vegetables.

Kal chatty, made of soapstone, was used for mashing spinach as well as making Pulikaachal – the slow heat made the food tastier. The more orthodox families preferred to keep salt and pickle in jars of soapstone rather than ceramic jadis.

Jadis came as parangi jadi – shaped like a pumpkin -- or an osara jadi (a tall one). Generally, the pickles were protected by covering the jadi with a cloth called vaedu, and then covering it with the lid.

Then there were special utensils for different dishes. Like puttu was made in a kuzhal, an oodhu kuzhal was used to fan the flame, an idly kopparai was for idli, there was the sevai naazhi and dosais and adais were made on a dosai or adai kal. Stir frying and sautéing were done with an illupai chatty. While, a bosi served a similar purpose but being wider, was used to cool hot food and dry food in the sun. The was a plate with holes in it to drain the water from the rice. An uruli was for payasam and a bhogini and kalyani came from Karnataka, shaped like a bosi. Cups for worship were called vattils, spoons were udhrini and the cylindrical water vessel was kolapathram or panchapathram. The tirukaveri had a spout with a yazhi for pouring water.

Serving utensils had their own names too. Kidiki was tongs, mathu was a pestle for squashing greens as well as churning buttermilk. An akhapai was for rice, muttai karandi, which was rounded and deep for liquids like ghee, jharini with holes for making boondi, elai karandi shaped like a folded banyan tree leaf. Plates were thambalam and thattu, cups, kinnam and along with the coffee filter was the tumbler and davara.

Kalayam was a pot with flat sides for oil. Lota and chombu were used to drink water. Chombus with a curved neck were popular in Thanjavur while the more angular ones came from Tirunelveli. The Vaishnava chombu was sharply formed as well as taller. Maambazha thumbi/chombu was wide and spherical at the bottom but tapering towards the top. The thaazhi was an almost oval vessel with a narrow neck for storing butter. The kooja was the predecessor to our water bottles.

Vessels for water

Vessels for storing water were indispensable those days. The kudam had a narrow neck and the thondi had very little of a neck. A charukku had a sharp slope on the top. The andaa was cylindrical in shape while the gangalam was an urn shaped vessel with handles through which a bamboo pole would be slipped to move it about. Some of the larger kodams had a little peeli or a tap at the bottom as well. A kopparai (like a pot), jorthavalai and kuvalai were smaller vessels to store water. Many of the larger vessels sat on a kodathadi, a ring that stabilized their spherical bases.

Outside the kitchen was an ammi for grinding spices, ural with ulakkai for pounding, (The women sang songs while doing this), yanthram for grinding to powder with a challadai or sieve and an ural for grinding idli/dosa batter. Ingredients were dried in a muram (winnow) or sholagu (round tray with a rim) made of palm leaves. Rice was stored in a kuthir and measured by a veesam padi. Liquids were measured in palams and seer. The final addition to the list, kitchens were called madapalli or adukalai. And cooking was referred to as samayal or thaligai.

Vessels were made of bronze, brass (coated inside with lead), iron or copper. Often vessels on which food was served were made of silver.

We may not use these today or even display them in our homes but they teach us the number of words – each reflective of unique usage – we have forgotten and in forgetting the words, we have forgotten a piece of our identity as well.

(With inputs from Dr. Rama Kausalya, V. Banu and S. Saraswathi. For vessels, Umaidorai of Malleswar Handicrafts , R A Puram, - Ph: 98406 66884).