Cast iron pans are making a comeback to Indian kitchens

Metal Shops at Pudhu Mandapam in Madurai.   | Photo Credit: S. James

In our household, there is no need for dumbbells. The iron dosa skillet will do. Extracting it from its secure corner is quite a task — it is so heavy that most of us have developed muscles over years of lifting it and heaving it over the stove. It has been in our kitchen for over 30 years, and is still in great shape.

That’s the thing with iron: so timeless that sometimes, it even outlives its user.

Utensils like these have always been a part of Indian kitchens; but somewhere along the way, we got drawn to non-stick. Now, iron is making a comeback.

Kayalvizhi Sriram, who runs Essential Traditions by Kayal, an online as well as standalone traditional cookware and home décor store in Chennai, says that there has been an increased demand for iron and cast iron cookware over the past year. “Iron pans are rugged; you can use one for, say, 10 years, let it go, and pick it up after another 10 years and it will still be as good,” she says, adding that using ironware on a daily basis requires patience. “Seasoning them is time-consuming.” Which is perhaps why iron lost out to the light-weight non-stick.

Kayalvizhi, whose store ships all over India, says that there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding iron. “It consumes less oil and people assume that only non-stick has this property,” she says. Once it is seasoned well, there’s no end to the number of crisp dosas a skillet can make.

Not just dosas: popular food blogger Swayampurna Mishra uses her cast ironware to grill meat, and says “charring and the way the juices seep into the meat over my cast iron grill are unparalleled”. She also uses it to grill vegetables such as potatoes to perfection. “It heats up quickly,” she warns, adding, “Temperature control is important. Using an iron pan calls for practice.”

Notes of caution

Cast iron consists of alloys such as carbon and silicon, as opposed to a pure iron utensil. Handling such material, that seemingly continues to be a living, breathing being, comes with responsibilities. Such as transferring food to a serving bowl the moment cooking is done. “Iron leaves traces of itself in the food,” explains Kayalvizhi. This tends to change the colour of the food, if left to sit in the pan for a long time.

But Kayalvizhi feels that in the long run, this could be beneficial for the body. According to her, “customers with anaemia tell me their haemoglobin levels have improved with repeated use of ironware. I myself started using them for the same reason.”

Kayalvizhi attributes increased awareness on ironware to social media. “We are talking about healthy eating and going back to our roots a lot more now.”

While it is satisfying to touch and feel an iron skillet before buying one, not all cities have physical stores. This is where online retailers such as Rustik Craft and Tredy come in. The former is based in Jaipur. “Most of our customers were from South India until recently,” says Sangeeta Sharma, who owns Rustik Craft. “But ironware is now becoming popular in North India as well.” The company also manufactures and exports their wares to the US and UK.

Tredy stocks utensils from villages around Salem and Madurai. It is common to see sellers bring iron pans and woks to weekly markets in India’s small towns. Their sources are often artisans who have been making pans for several generations. “We source from such people,” says S Aravindh from Tredy, adding that the artisans get iron sheets pressed at foundries and work on the utensils with moulds in their small workshops. “They shape vessels by hand and polish the surface by removing extra metal,” he explains.

Pick up any iron or cast skillet in Tamil Nadu, and chances are it originated in Madurai. Kitchenware shops in the 379-year-old Pudhu Mandapam, a stone-pillared market built by king Thirumalai Nayak in the city that attracts customers from across India and even abroad. “You cannot start using it from the word go,” says S Sultan, who works in the 127-year-old kitchenware store MM Abdul Kadar & Bros, pointing to a cast iron paniyaram pan. “Soak it overnight in water that has been used to wash rice. Then, add plenty of oil and fry onions in it.” This has to be discarded. “You can then start using it. But I’d advise you to first deep-fry something before you start using it to make paniyaram.”

Shops here have their own workshops and sell pans of various sizes; skillets come even in the shape of squares. Abdul Rahman, owner of the 114-year-old Sikkander Stores, holds up the thandavala dosaikkal or railway track dosa skillet, which he says is made of the same iron that’s used to lay train tracks.

The men at Pudhu Mandapam shops say the shift to iron is easy. “Just one thing,” Sultan warns, “Don’t drop it on your foot.”

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Printable version | Sep 14, 2021 4:17:58 AM |

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