Life & Style

Step up to the mud plate

It’s a hot Sunday afternoon, way past lunch time, when the conversation, unfortunately and quite expectedly, veers into the smell of coconut chutney and the crackling of masala-coated fish on a hot pan. “I grew up listening to stories of how my mom and her siblings would run towards the kitchen, when my grandma made rice and curry. Have you ever tried grinding coconut in an ammi kalu?” asks Kayalvizhi Raja, who has curated select traditional cookware from across the country, at her store, Vaer Organic, in RA Puram. Memories of brief summer holidays spent at grandma’s, come alive; she would take a mound of grated coconut, two red chillies, and three small onions, and run the oval pin on the rectangular craggy stone rhythmically, to grind all of it into a smooth paste. “Once you taste the chutney made using that, you wouldn’t go back to using the mixer. Of course, the electric appliance is a lifesaver for office-goers, and those who do not want to exert much, but a point that is undebatable is the taste,” she reiterates.

Conception

Raja and her husband Shriram Narayanan started Vaer Organic in 2013, which was also around the time the city saw an upsurge of similar stores, including Dhanyam, Organic Green Store, and so on. However, Vaer was the first to take up orders online for organic vegetables. The couple, who were working with corporates, decided to give up their jobs and start something which ‘gives back to society and concerns the environment’. The trigger was when four years ago they met a septuagenarian farmer in Tiruvannamalai, who was leading a healthy self-sufficient life, with a minimal carbon footprint. The idea of an organic store was conceived then.

“I would get one kilogram of potatoes from the farmer, and put it up on the company’s Facebook page. They would get sold in a blink… that’s how we started our operations.” Now, however, even as we walk past baskets of organic sapotas, juicy oranges, firm pineapples and blood-red pomegranates, what cannot be missed is the brand-new section that includes round-bottomed brick-red kadais, jet-black dosa chattis, shiny-brown, sand-papered coconut shell ladles and the heavy long-handle brass ones.

What’s in store?

Raja stops us to show an ‘iron jalebi kadai’, which “you can use to make fajita, stir-fry, or bisibelabath”, and kneels to pull out a rather deep terracotta pot, which looks like the rest of the lot, until she tells us millennials to peep inside. We find tiny stones embedded on the base inside — it’s no manufacturing defect, but a genius idea by the artisans of our ancestors’ era, she clarifies. “In the ‘paruppu keera chatti’, you can fill boiled greens and paruppu, hold the chatti between your feet, and churn it using a ladle, so that it breaks up the dal and keerai into a mushy paste,” she demonstrates.

Right next to it is a jet-black oil-coated paniyaram cast-iron pan. “When I first bought these, I poured a mix of raw eggs and dosa maavu (besides other seasoning) into each of the moulds, and they came out as beautiful balls of eggs!” In this, the oil consumption is less, and it has been said that cooking in iron cookware is especially good for those who are anaemic. While they are a little heavy, the maintenance is low. “With the iron and cast-iron pans, you just have to scrub it clean with soap and water, and then coat it with a layer of oil to avoid rusting. When it comes to terracotta bowls and jugs, make sure that they are not cleaned with soap, as they are porous, and the smell of soap might stick.” All traditional cookware — like iron dosa pan, uruli, and clay bowls, are best when seasoned (can be as simple as dipping them in rice water for a while). “Be ready to fight for your grandma’s kitchenware; the more you have cooked in those utensils, the better they are.”

Vanishing bowls

While all the clayware is from Attur, the soapstone bowls are from a small village in Salem, enroute Tiruchengode. Raja and Narayanan travelled for four years to villages near Madurai, Trichy, Salem, Kumbakonam, and Tirunelveli... to find artisans who are still pursuing the craft. “Traditional cookware, like the soapstone bowls, are almost extinct now. I looked for it at many places, and finally found it in one village; the artisan had just thrown it in one corner.” Artisans have stopped making these altogether; the duo had to request them to make a set for their store.

“These are so much better than the steel davaras, to store curd, chutney, salsa, or even nuts. Curd doesn’t turn sour when kept in this,” she says. Similarly, the vengalam (brass) spatulas, made in Sevvaipettai, Salem, are also almost extinct. “I am planning another trip to Darasuram, where the brass sculptures are amazing. The brass utilities that we have here are from Moradabad. The artisans there only make statues of gods and goddesses, and lamps; they have completely stopped making the cookware due to lack of demand.” To generate interest in traditional cookware, artisans are trying to give them a more contemporary look. Mud water cans with a faucet fixed on one end are an example. The big urulis and soapstone containers have now been tailor-made for a kitchen of a small family. Not to mention fat microwavable beer mugs with bamboo handles. It’s probably time to say cheers to grandma’s utensils.


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Printable version | Sep 17, 2021 4:58:26 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/step-up-to-the-mud-plate/article17951774.ece

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