By Sreedevi Lakshmi Kutty May 2013 A tryst with clay cooking pots in Spain recalled memories of her childhood kitchen in Kerala, and revived Sridevi Lakshmi Kutty’s fondness for cooking in them An array of multicoloured, deliciously attractive cazuelasWhy do pots matter? Is it middle age or yet another fad or is it a progressive evolution to mindful eating and preparing food that has made me fascinated with pots? Anyway, I am the proud owner of two beautiful brown cazuelas, glazed inside and unglazed at the bottom and two mustard yellow cocottes that together take care of a good part of my cooking. Over months they have acquired battle scars of age and use and their surface have begun to look like my middle aged face, fine wrinkles which appear with my smiles and the frown lines that are here to stay. However, unlike steel or aluminium vessels that look unpretty with age, these pots have aged gracefully, becoming part of the household –evolving with our taste buds and with us, for the long haul. They patiently and evenly cook the beans, red rice, quinoa, couscous, channa and our array of soups. In addition, they are also getting used to the idiosyncrasies of sambar, rasam and avial, dishes from a distant land – cooked by an Indian couple, in the cold climes of Netherlands, in cazuelas that originated in Spain. As far as I have understood, cazuelas and cocottes are essentially similar kind of cookware with minor differences; but there may be more to it that I am not aware of. Cazuelas are traditional, distinctive looking terracotta pots/pans from Spain, an essential part of any Spanish kitchen (also used widely in other Mediterranean countries) and usually passed down from mother to the daughter or daughter-in-law. Apparently they have been in use since over 1000 years. What we get in the shops/markets today could be either hand thrown or mass produced, both kinds are fired twice in a kiln (once before glazing and once after) and glazed inside, but have an unglazed terracotta base. I came upon these quite unexpectedly while browsing in a fascinating shop that stocks hand-made artifacts from different countries. It was love at first sight, I was somehow so reminded of the beautiful mud pots in which we cook fish in Kerala (in Malayalam we call them meen-chattis – literally translated to pots for cooking fish). I wonder whether it was the memory of the delicious fish curries eaten through the first half of my life or the grace of these pots that attracted me. Long and short of it, the first pot came home with me, and more joined the first! Since then quite a bit of our cooking has been in these cazuelas and cocottes. The pots also demand care and attention. The store owner, an avid cook who uses cazuelas, cautioned me: “You can’t just take these home and place them directly on the hob; these pots have to be soaked in water for at least four hours and preferably 12 hours to season them”. Washing a cazuela is easy as the food doesn’t stick to it. The best way is to just scrub it with a mild scrubber and rinse it. The unglazed base absorbs water, making the cazuela sturdier. He continued, “It is not enough to season the cazuela, using it also requires some deliberation and care; don’t place an empty cazuela on an already lit hob and add food into it, put the ingredients in and then put the cazuela with the food on the hob.” Clearly, he knew his cazuelas! Washing a cazuela is easy as the food doesn’t stick to it. It is better not to use detergents; the best way is to just scrub it with a mild scrubber and rinse it. Traditional unglazed clay pots are best washed with salt and water as they are capable of absorbing the dishwashing soap. I am told that some modern-day cazuelas can go safely into a dishwasher, but I am not testing that with my precious ones! A feast for the eyes as well as for the palate: A dainty cazuela shop Cooking with a cazuela is a slow process on a low fire, it takes time to warm up; once it begins cooking, it trundles along steadily and evenly; rest assured the contents will be evenly cooked and require hardly any supervision. You can switch off the stove a few minutes before the food is done as the pot will continue to cook and the food will bubble even after it is taken off the stove. This is not my first brush with clay pans/pots, though they are responsible for converting me into a clay-pot cooking enthusiast. During my Mumbai days, I began collecting terracotta curios when I visited Kerala and struck upon the notion that I should use clay pots to cook. I bought three; two arrived intact and the third arrived in pieces! I seasoned the pots by applying coconut oil and let them stand for a day and then soaked them in water for a few hours and they were ready for use. These unglazed clay pots had the advantage that being porous, moisture circulates through the pot ensuring even moist cooking ( without drying the food). The alkaline clay also interacts with the food and neutralizes the pH balance in the food. My clay pots did turn out particularly tasty thiyal and other tamarind-based preparations. As a child I remember that Omana, my mother’s Lady Friday, used to buy new clay pots every year from the local markets or during the temple festival markets in Kerala. One or two of them were used to store water, one was used to cook rice and another to prepare tapioca and the special meen chattis (more than one) for preparing delicious fish curries with tamarind or raw mango in it. We also had stoneware, inherited from my great-grand mother, pots carved from sand-stone called kalchattis (available in Kerala and Tamil Nadu) in which all the sambars, avials and other gravies were prepared. My strongest memories of kalchatti cooking are of Omana Amma (not the other Omana, they are two women with the same name), an inspired cook, who insisted on cooking all the curries for lunch on the wood fire in kalchattis, years after the LPG gas stove and aluminium vessels had conquered my parents’ kitchen. I didn’t know enough to know whether cooking in clay pots made a difference in taste but what I distinctly remember is the deliberate, methodical and mindful way that Omana Amma cooked. A lovely woman, then in her early 60s, she would come after breakfast, cut vegetables, grind coconut for the different preparations and then settle down to having some paan. Once she was done, she would light the wood stove with a few dry twigs and firewood and turn out one delicious dish after another, all cooked on the wood fire in clay or stone pots! Generally a quick and impatient cook, I often struggle with the terracotta pots. I am slowly changing; planning dinner beforehand, starting it a little earlier and also developing patience to wait for the pot to cook at its pace, handle and wash it carefully. Yet, it has not been incident free. One of the cazuellas has developed a crack, thanks to my carelessness in letting it dry on the hob. I have a long way to go. But, it is worth it. Let us get out our chattis, kalchattis and claypots and regain those flavours!
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