I remember visiting my ancestral home in the village as a kid and having fond memories of the rustic, enormous kitchen it housed. A corner of the kitchen would house three brick and mortar stoves that were fuelled by wood and charcoal. One stove would be perpetually occupied by a large iron cauldron in which water would be heated for various chores around the house including cooking. The others would be used for cooking yummy delicacies by the cooks in the house under my grandmother’s strict direction.
The kitchen would be a spectacle of beautiful copper and aluminium pots and pans, which looked like jewels adorning the place. As a kid I would just marvel at the huge variety in the size and shapes of all the vessels and wished having the same kind of kitchen one day for myself.
Today, when I perceive my kitchen at home in Mumbai and remember my grandmother’s one back in the village decades ago, I can’t help but ponder on how are culinary traditions have gradually evolved with time. The cookware, the cooking fuel, the cooking techniques all seem to have undergone a makeover.
At the onset of the 20th century cast iron cookware was almost running out of its existence in households. This was mainly due to longer durations taken to reach even heat/temperatures across the vessel while cooking. Copper cookware available at that time proved a less cumbersome option than cast iron cookware. Although certain vessels around the house like the water cauldron, the tava (griddle) and the kadai (wok) continued to be those made of cast iron.
Copper vessels in most Indian households was a common site for centuries and unrelentingly existed in a big way for most decades of 20th century. Copper was a better heat conductor than iron. But the issue of metal leaching into the food that lead to food poisoning was a frequent occurrence. In order to avoid such poisoning cases and continue cooking, copper cookware would be given a kalai or tin coating. This process required vessels to be taken to blacksmiths frequently. It was this arduous task of maintaining copper cookware that paved the way for aluminium vessels in most kitchens around the mid-20th century.
For beginners, the aluminium cookware was lighter in weight and the problem of metal leaching was resolved to an extent. However, aluminium cookware continued to have its share of problems. Since the aluminium cookware had low thickness the heat conductivity was rapid on a wood fire stove and this would lead to overcooking and burning of food quickly. This was mainly due to the fact that the flame on the wood fire stove could not be regulated the way it can on gas burners we have today in our kitchens.
By 1950s the wood fire stoves were replaced by gas fired ones in many households in the cities, especially Mumbai. This was primarily attributed to the lack of convenience in sourcing wood and charcoal in the city. Also, modernization in any field including the cooking fuel made its way first into the big cities. This was also driven by the need for a clean source of cooking fuel in a small indoor kitchen. The use of wood and charcoal would leave a lot of soot on the cookware as well surrounding walls, which the city dwellers did not appreciate. Thus, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and stoves powered by LPG started making their way into many kitchens in the larger cities.
The use of aluminium cookware adjusted well with gas burners, the flame of which could be easily controlled. However, the doubts of health hazard related to use of aluminium continued to loom over aluminium cookware. The contact of food with aluminium surface and the sticking of food to the cookware surface still continued to create problems for aluminium cookware. This apprehension then paved way for the popularity of steel and stainless steel cookware introduced in the latter half of the 20th century. These were considered more neutral substances for a cookware especially with acidic foods. However, the problem of food sticking to the cookware base continued to persist even with the steel cookware.
The solution to this problem was the introduction of an inner lining of a material called Teflon on an aluminium cookware. TEFAL was the pioneer brand in the world in this non-stick cookware category deriving its name from the two aforementioned materials used in the manufacturing of cookware. In India this cookware rose to prominence in urban households in the 1980s and the 1990s.
The dawn of 21st century brought with it a change in the way cooking sources were being treated. It brought with it the concept of microwave ovens. The use of any kind of metallic substance was not at all permissible in the case of the microwave ovens. This form of cooking then saw the rise of microwaveable cookware materials like polypropylene (microwaveable plastic), glazed ceramic, borosilicate glass and silicone. Except ceramic cookware that is glazed, none of the other microwaveable material cookware can be used for cooking on gas stoves.
Also, with the recent rise in popularity on induction cooktops, the cast iron cookware are making a comeback in a modern avatar. There is also a trend to bring back copper into the kitchen owing to its great heat conductivity. Therefore, many households are using stainless steel vessels with a copper base for cooking. Anodized aluminium cookware is also gaining acceptance owing to its robust nature as opposed to regular aluminium cookware.
Thus, in order to conclude I can say my household kitchen today is a blend of best of the past and the present. Even today in the 21st century we use water tumblers and glasses carved out of copper. For toasting dry ingredients especially spices, the tava or the griddle used in my household is still a cast iron one. The giant vessel for boiling water for sterilizing select utensils is the one made out of steel. The major cooking vessels and pans are made of anodized aluminium, stainless steel vessels with a copper base and non-stick cookware. The borosilicate glassware I have is restricted for making of casserole recipes while the silicone one is used for baking cakes, muffins and chocolates. I am sure the rate at which our food consumption trends are evolving, sky is going to be the limit for innovation in the cookware industry.
(This article was submitted in the Wonderchef Blogger Contest 2016 and has also won the same.)
- Regional Indian Food & Travel enthusiast