Omana amma would walk in mid morning with a day’s worth of betel leaf and a beautiful smile. She would settle down to leisurely exchange of the day’s news with my mother. Half an hour later, she would chop vegetables and build a small fire in the two wood stoves in the kitchen annexe. In the next hour, delicious aromas would waft from thekalchattis(stone vessels) andmanchattis(mud vessels) bubbling over small well-managed fires. All of us relished her delicious sambars,aviyal, theeyalsandkaalan.When she stopped cooking for us, thekalchattiswere relegated to the loft.
As my interest in traditional food increased, Omana amma’s cooking came to mind. A few years ago, I started rooting around my parents’ loft and found a few kalchattis that my mother had inherited from her grandmother. These were bequeathed to me and soI have a few old blackkalchattisof varying sizes and shapes. Some are tall with a small circumference and used for makingpuli injior rasam. Another is suitable for sambar, a third foraviyaland so on. The surfaces have a matt black patina — the black from the wood stove and years of use and the smooth finish from decades of soft scrubbing.
Kalchattisare cooking vessels carved out of soapstone, a naturally occurring soft stone. Thick walled and heavy, they ensure slow and even cooking. Since they are porous, heat and moisture circulate through the pot while cooking, thereby enhancing the flavours.
Traditionally used on wood stoves, these can also be used on the modern gas stove.Kalchattisneutralise the pH balance of acidic food items and thus enhance their nutritional value.Kalchattiscan be used to prepare gravies, but not for dry preparations or sautéing.
Let the food cook slowly. Turn off the flame 4-5 minutes before the food is fully cooked. It will continue to cook slowly in the heat retained inside the vessel. The time taken to heat the kalchatti is compensated when the slow cooking process continues even after the stove is switched off.
Food cooked in oldkalchattiskeep well for the next day as well without refrigeration. As the vessel ages, the cooking quality improves. Most important, thekalchattihas to be seasoned before you start cooking in it.
Even after seasoning, thekalchattishould be introduced gently and slowly into daily cooking. Use on a low flame and don’t let the water dry while cooking. Periodically oil it and leave overnight before washing it in the morning.
Mykalchattishave become an integral part of the cooking routine. Sourcing organic, whole foods from farmers and preparing it in my grandmother’skalchattischanges the tenor of the whole act of sourcing and cooking food.
Food is less of a commodity and more of a bond with the farmers; cooking has become less a chore and more an active connection to my grandmother. Search through your grandmother’s store of vessels to find kalchattis or order them online. They are usually available in temple fairs.
This article was originally published in The Hindu, Metro plus edition of Coimbatore on May 03, 2017