Life on the slow burner

In a bid to catch up with the latest fad of slow cooking, I recently picked up a ‘basic cooker’ in Manipuri black pottery. It is a simple pot with a lid. The lid has ‘159’ written on it, while the rim of the pot also has the same number etched at a specific point. The potter explained that the number on the rim and on the lid should sit together for the vessel to close perfectly. It would then work like a pressure cooker sans the pressure. The concept, he said, helped cook the food slowly and made it tastier.

It worked, only the water measurement for the food had to be adjusted. Seeing my enthusiasm with this rudimentary object, my parents remembered their precious Rukmani Cooker. It was brought from Kumbakonam in the late 1950s or early 60s by my dad’s friend. It was a one-stop way to cook everything for a meal — rice, dal and vegetables.

My mother explained the concept, promising to get someone to bring the pieces down from the loft and put it alltogether. The inside vessels are made of steel, while the cooker itself is brass. When a modern pressure cooker made its way into her kitchen, my mother promptly put away the heavy Rukmani Cooker and we only knew about it because she would sometimes point to a steel vessel and say, “This comes from the Rukmani Cooker.”

Life on the slow burner

We lost my mother before the Rukmani Cooker could be put together. Later, reading a newspaper piece by Vikram Doctor, I remembered it, and it was finally brought down from the loft. The brass lid has “2 “11 Rukmani Cooker Patent No. 4917” etched on it. I think it is meant for cooking for two persons. The patent has been referenced in an application made in 1999 by another inventor of a fuel energy saving cooker. It seems to have six cooking vessels, each marked R C Co. I hunted for this logo on all the vessels roaming loose in my mother’s kitchen and managed to thus recreate the cooker. I am not sure I missed out a couple of pieces.

Put together, it is a really cool concept. The six vessels are of different shapes — a deep cylindrical one, three smart tiffin carrier type dishes, a shallow plate, and a smaller cylindrical vessel. These can be used in any permutation combination, depending on the menu of the day. And best of all, they all go into the main unit which can then be carried around like a little bucket. It was ideal to be taken on journeys. My father explained that when people went on pilgrimages in olden days, this cooker would serve as a portable kitchen.

The cooker uses the double boiler method, with water filled in the main container. The rice, dal and vegetables are put into the cooking vessels, which are then lowered into the container, which is then covered and put on the stove top. The food cooks slowly and steadily, contributing to the taste, and the brass exterior retains the heat so the food stays warm.

An older version of the modern-day pressure cooker, invented almost a century ago and rolled out commercially, was the iconic Icmic Cooker. Invented by the talented Indumadhab Mallick (1869-1917), a lawyer, physician, entrepreneur and more, in 1910, the Icmic Cooker was similar to the Rukmani Cooker, with a tiffin carrier of sorts used to place the food in, which was then lowered into the cooker. It used charcoal fire and was a runaway hit. Various sizes were available, and it became the favoured way to cook meat in many households. Bachelors loved it, because they would fill it with rice, dal and meat, light the charcoal burner, and leave the food to cook for a few hours.

Piping hot meals would be ready when they came back at noon or evening. It found its way into several cookery books and novels. In fact, it is still being manufactured in Kolkata, where it continues to be in demand.

After much struggle, I managed to speak to Subrata Chatterjee of Monmotho Enterprise, in whose workshop the Icmic Cooker is still made. She promptly sent images of the cooker with prices and sizes via Whatsapp. It comes in aluminium and brass, and in three sizes, meant for four, six and eight people. Today, the Icmic can be used on charcoal, gas or even an electrical plate.

Another equally popular cooker was the Santosh Cooker, available today on antique sites online. Mansukhbhai Prajapati, the inventor of the MittiCool refrigerator, has also invented an earthenware cooker that works on the slow cooking process. It not only retains energy but I am told the taste of cooking in clay permeates into the food.

For now, I have used my Manipuri and Rukmani cookers in rather basic ways. I’ve made Pongal and Khichdi. But my experiments have come to a temporary halt, much to my father’s delight, because the part-time help put his foot down and pointed to the shining pressure cookers, saying firmly that these were the best ways to cook. My Rukmani was backward, he said. Since I can ill afford to offend the part-time help, my experiments with slow cooking will be resumed later.

Chitra Balasubramaniam is a freelance writer on food, textiles, travel and heritage. She also does investment analysis and research.

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Printable version | Dec 1, 2020 6:41:30 PM |

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