It is said that even the best of recipes, handed down across generations in a family, cannot produce the same taste as the original creation. Part of the magic was in the expertise of the cook, the other part in the traditional pots and pans in which the food was cooked.

Thick-bottomed cookware, replete with dents and caked with sweet and savoury fragments of past meals, despite typically being cleaned with wet earth, added a dimension to the recipe that is tough to recreate. Nevertheless, contemporary cooks now have a way to try.

Several brands like Zishta, Rock, The Village Fair, MBC Earthenware Healthware have lately cropped up in the Indian market that offer old-fashioned cookware for the entire kitchen: cast iron skillets and tavas, stone kalchattis, bronze urlis, as well as pots, kadais and bottles made from clay.

The benefits of this cookware are many. For one thing, food tastes better when cooked in these elements, promised Archish Mathe of Zishta, which sells over 20 types of traditional cooking utensils, made of clay, soapstone, iron and bronze. For another, these elements don’t have the chemical additives of the modern non-stick cookware.

“Traditional cookware lasts for years and is chiefly a one-time investment,” said Mathe. “My grandmother still uses them in her daily cooking. Today, they are an integral part of our household too. Every time we make rasam in the Eeya Chombu, joy and nostalgia come rushing back.”

Ammi is used to grind small spices. Credit: Thamizhpparithi Maari/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

A brief history

For most of the 20th century, Indians used stainless steel in the kitchen. Cooking became a lot less time consuming because steel was easy to handle and maintain. Even the elderly, who were accustomed to traditional cookware, were smitten by the look, feel and ease of stainless steel.

After that came Teflon-coated utensils. Lighter and easier to clean, they did not require any prepping (unlike traditional cookware), and could be conveniently stored. But neither steel nor non-stick cookware provides the heat resistance of cast iron, or the taut grip of a clay or stone pot. Oils smoke up quickly in steel and non-stick implements, and their coating comes off after just a few uses. For deep-frying, iron has always been the preferred choice well before steel or Teflon made their way into the modern kitchen. The economic viability and aesthetics of modern cookware are effortlessly trumped by the durability, stability, and sustainability of traditional cookware.

It is for these reasons that many households in Indian cities are making the switch gradually. Farmer’s markets allow entrepreneurs to sell their wares directly to consumers, and it is easy to buy everything from organic produce to traditional pots and pans in one place.

Hand turned wooden mortar and pestle. Credit: William Warby/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Kavitha Senthil, a homemaker and farming enthusiast from Coimbatore, said: “We have made the switch from non-stick to cast iron recently, and our dosas and paniyarams taste better than ever. My family has been using traditional cookware for years, even though they were temporarily lured by the modern, shiny, coated cookware for a while a few years ago. All dals and greens are invariably cooked in clay pots – smashed with a chetti before allowing them to come to a nice simmer. In a place like Coimbatore any potter can make you clayware upon request, and my mother has had hers for over a decade.”

Ramya Balaji, a former software engineer and homemaker in Bengaluru, did not really have a choice.

“Both my mother and my mother-in-law only used traditional cookware, and it never occurred to us to take to modern cookware,” she said. “We knew the health benefits of using traditional pots – clay pots and iron pans are used more regularly, but stoneware isn’t best suited for urban kitchens with gas stoves. Stoneware is used more often in the small towns, where cooking mostly happens on a chulha, and slow-cooking is really the norm.”

Balaji said there are rules to follow when cooking with traditional cookware – and yes, “they’re slightly more difficult to maintain than the regular ones” – but in the end it is all worth it. Her traditional cookware is the real deal – non-branded items, procured from blacksmiths and potters who are part of the santhe, or community market in her mother-in-law’s hometown, near Puducherry.

Cooking on a stone stove. Credit: Thamizhpparithi Maari/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

Health benefits

For years, people believed that cooking in cast iron pans enhanced the intake of Iron. Mathe attested to this. “The feasibility of traditional cookware needs to be looked at from a holistic health point of view,” he said. “There’s enough research that proves they retain the nutritional value of the food, thereby enhancing health benefits. Research shows that the use of cast iron reduces the incidence of anaemia, which is the biggest problem with women in India today.”

According to Ayurveda, tin is necessary to balance phlegm in the human body and to reduce the incidence of urinary tract infections. “This was also the fundamental knowledge that our grandmothers used, to make pepper rasam in a tin vessel as a remedy for cold, cough and fever,” Mathe said.

Restaurateur and chef Abhijit Saha said that traditional utensils should be used not just to cook, but to store food too. “Yogurt is traditionally set in earthen pots, because they help nurture the good bacteria, which in turn help set thick yogurt,” he said.

Food habits differ from region to region, thanks to cultural practices that evolved based on locally available ingredients. These have impacted the type of cookware too. Saha, for instance, uses a tagine pot to cook Moroccan dishes, and a Paella pan for the eponymous Spanish dish.

He said that people prefer quick and easy recipes because of paucity of time, but that they need to be more conscious of how food gets to the table. “The health benefits of cooking in traditional vessels are linked to cleaning up the entire food cycle, which is very critical.” At Saha’s restaurant in Bengaluru, Fava, the staff is trying to promote this kind of sustainability, with a new menu and locally sourced ingredients.

A return to the old

Mathe, who uses traditional cookware at home, said that although the time it takes for traditional utensils to heat up is slightly more than regular stainless steel cookware, the overall cooking time is reduced. “This helps in reducing your energy consumption to a great extent over long periods of use,” he said, citing the example of the Kal Chatti. “Once treated, this soapstone vessel pushes the heat back into the cooking space and cooks greens much faster than any other vessel. At the same time, it preserves the nutritional value of the greens, also adding some natural minerals of the stone.”

Food blogger and entrepreneur Archana Doshi said those who cannot or have not made the switch should still try a mix of modern and traditional cookware. “For dishes that require stir frying or for making rotis, sandwiches, dosas, I use iron at home,” she said. “After a lot of study, research and continuous usage, I feel that iron helps in even distribution of heat and the dishes taste great in them too.”

Whether the sudden influx of traditional cookware is the result of well-informed choices or just a passing fad, it is evident that the harmonious distribution of heat and nutritive values, the symmetrical play of textures and flavours that bring a meal together, are all a part of a higher order of culinary art. Cooking styles may differ across cultures and cuisines, but traditional cookware certainly impacts the outcome in more ways than one.