For the generation that’s growing up in the times of gleaming kitchen countertops, microwaves and touchpad watertaps, this might sound like a Stone Age story. But for many of us old-timer Madrasis (not that old, either), it really wasn’t that long ago grinding maavu using aatu kallu was a way of life. Do you remember excitedly awaiting your chance to turn that kozhavi a few times every time our grandmother, or mother would sit down to grind something? Or begging for one chance to draw water from the well as a kid? Before you go into rewind mode and get nostalgic, let’s tell you that even today, there are many households in Chennai that are holding on to the old way of life, albeit in bits and pieces… “I remember, every day when we used to come back from school, mother would be grinding idli maavu for breakfast the next day on the aatu kallu. And chutney was always ground on the ammi kallu — as children, we used to hate having to do that, but there was no choice. When I got married into a large family, and the huge ancestral home had a kitchen that, in those days, had four varagu adappu. They had to be lit each morning, and across the kitchen, a window opened straight into the well, for, water had to be drawn even if one had to have a glass of water. Overhead tanks, and storage systems were unheard of back then,” reminisces 80-year-old Shanta Swamy, a resident of Poonamallee. “In our home today, chutney is still made on the ammi kallu — even my daughter-in-law loves it, says it gives her a good workout,” she adds.
Not only that, with the resurgence of the going-back-to-the-roots phenomenon, many of the younger generation are also willingly embracing some of the old-time practices as an everyday way of life. As Shruthi Vasan, a 29-year-old professional puts it, “I had never imagined I’d marry into a family that still used ammi kallu — I didn’t even know what it was, till I came to Chennai after marriage. But now, I enjoy using it once in a while. My mom-in-law tells me that using the aatu kallu, aruvamanai, and ammi kallu is good for the woman’s figure and overall well-being, and I would now agree with her, though I was very sceptical initially.”
Those were the times cookers and non-stick wares were unheard of. Instead, there was the kallu chatti, made of soft soapstone, the vengala panai, uruli, eeya pathiram, irumbu chatti… and all of them used over the logfire. Till today, every Tamil boy and girl grows up with the belief that rasam tastes best when made in the eeya pathiram, though they may never be able to tell you why! The beauty of this is, each utensil was meant for a specific dish. As Sundari Subramanian, a retired Math professor residing in Valsaravakkam, says, “I always make rasam in the eeeya sombu, and always use the ilupu karandi for tempering. This karandi is my mamiyaar’s amma’s. It is a sort of hand-me-down, now,” she laughs, and adds, “Ever wondered why women back then never had iron deficiency? It is because this tempering in the iron karandi, or cooking in the iron kadhai gave them their daily dose of iron along with the food. We also use the vengala panai, though not on a regular basis; we use it on special occasions, to make swami neivedhyam, and all.
In the same way, keera masiyal was always made in the mann chatti. The reason being, the uneven, and slightly rough insides of the chatti would naturally mash the keerai even as it is stirred, which meant all the nutrients were intact.” Ammi kallu is another implement that is regularly used in their household, says Sundari. “Kothamalli tohayal adhula dhaan arapom,” she avers, even as she shows off all the other utensils of yore she has collected and proudly displayed all over the house. “Most of them are used on some occasion or the other,” she says.
Living an almost bygone way of life is also Nagappan Ramasamy, a retired government employee, who says he loves to light the logfire in the backyard first thing in the morning – and wait, he’s been regularly doing it ever since he and his family shifted to Vandalur in 1978. “This was practically a barren land back then. And the well, and the aduppu were a necessity back then. Electricity was — well, it still is — a problem here, and so, the well, and the aduppu helped. Nowadays, in the morning, the first thing I do is heat water for my bath on the aduppu. And we use waste from the thenna maram, and other bio-waste we generate at home to light the fire. We also love to cook certain dishes over the aduppu — adhakku oru vera taste,” says Ramasamy, who is also particular about taking care of the water in the well. “Rainwater harvest panni, that water is channelled into the well. That keeps it full even during dry seasons. When there is no electricity, even the neighbours come to draw water from the well,” says Ramasamy proudly.
However, one way of life that Sundari rues is gone forever is the custom of women taking bath in the water drawn from the well, in the backyard, or kollaparam, as it is called. “Andha kalathla, every house would have a well in the backyard, line-a irrukum. Enga mamiyaar athula ellam appudi dhaan. And all the women would talk to each other across homes, and take a bath. The men would follow dharmam, and not even come that side. These days, if I want to take a bath by the well, the entire apartment in the next lane will peep,” she says.
But even as you lose some, you win some — making a strong comeback riding the organic wave, is the enna chekku — places where edible oil is extracted using huge stone pressers. “I have seen one in Aminjikarai, which was almost closing down, doing brisk business now,” says Anantha Raman, a 78-year-old Chetpet resident. “All these fancy stores call them ‘cold-pressed’ and what not and price it so high! In olden days, one bottle would cost `5. Then the refined oil fad came in, and people started saying pure oils are bad for health and all, but we never stopped using chekku ennai, which is basically all about grinding to paste the raw material, which could be peanuts, sesame, or coconut, and being pressed in the stone mill until it expels oil. Typical Brahmin south Indian cooking uses oil very sparingly, so there is no problem of calories. There is also a measure to use the oil — groundnut oil is used for deep frying, coconut oil for tempering, and sesame oil for curries and gravies,” he explains.
These utensils were used because…
Uruli: This is made from bell metal, a copper-tin alloy. Typically used to make jams and payasams because of its heavy bottom and high heating point.
Eeya pathiram: (there are two types, velleeyam (tin) and kareeyam (lead). One always uses velleeyam for cooking purposes, especially, rasam, the reason being, the spices added to rasam, when mixed with tin, safeguards the human body from diabetes, and urinogenital tract infections. In Aurveda, tin ash (vanga bhasmam) is used to cure both as it is said to balance kapha.
Vengalai panai: This is made of bronze, of a conical shape. Used to cook rice, as it could retain heat, had a smaller mouth, which made it easy to hold on to, and tilt, with a chippal thattu on top, to drain excess water
lCheena chattis: Typically used to store leftovers, and to set curd. At a time when refrigerators and air conditioners were not there, the these porus clay pots automatically kept the temperature minimal, and let the food breathe.
lIrumbu kadais: Usually used for that last touch — tempering of rasam, sambar and kootu. Heating an iron pan, pouring oil, and adding spices to it meant traces of iron mixed in with the lot, which then formed a sort of layer over the dishes. No wonder our grandmothers never worried about haemoglobin levels.
lCopper sombu: Always used to store/drink water. Copper, being used for purification of water finds a mention in our ancient texts. When copper mixes with water, it kills all the micro-organisms, virus and bacteria in water.