Traditional cookware is back in kitchens
Sustainable, traditional, handcrafted, rooted. These aren’t mere buzzwords; they’re the beginning of a movement that has slowly been gaining strength. Cookware and serveware crafted from traditional materials like iron, soapstone, bronze and copper was once pushed off the shelves by cheaper and more durable options like steel, plastic and Teflon. But if you look closely and hear the chatter, you’ll notice that people are returning to their roots and adopting traditional handcrafted cookware for their modern kitchens.
Think earthen pots for setting yogurt; cast iron pots to make curries; soapstone grinders to pound spices; serveware crafted from bronze and so much more. The reasons are many. Not only does this cookware support artisanal communities, it is also durable, has health benefits and generates minimum waste during production making it sustainable. “I used to set yogurt in a glass bowl. But I recently read that a clay pot is better because it increases the healthy bacteria,” says Prerna Thakur, a filmmaker. Thakur didn’t have to look far to find her vessel of choice. “I was surprised to find a family of potters selling these handmade vessels right next to my apartment. They said they’re been surprised at how popular their earthen pots have become, which is why they’ve been making them in all sizes and shapes.”
Some may argue its nostalgia, but others say that there is serious wisdom (and health benefits) in cooking food in traditionally crafted cookware. “And it definitely tastes better,” says Smita Nair, a marketing executive, who bought cast iron pans and soapstone dishes when she recently visited a local market in the Indian state of Kerala. “The dosas (a south Indian pancake made with rice) taste and feel so much better on the flat iron pan because the heat is distributed evenly. My family used to cook using traditional cookware earlier but gave into steel at some point. I hope I can reverse that,” she adds.
What is helping revive this interest in handmade cookware is also accessibility. Several Indian brands now offer old-fashioned cookware not only at local markets but even online – making it easily available for the urban kitchen keeper. From cast iron pots and pans to stone and wood mortar-pestles and serveware crafted from bronze, it’s all making a comeback. Archish Mathe, the owner of Zishta, which sources utensils straight from the artisans, says that besides supporting local industry, this cookware also has immense health benefits. “Unlike non-stick and modern cookware, these don’t have any chemical additives,” he says, adding that research also shows that the use of cast iron is great for health.
Zishta works with traditional utensil artisans from various parts of Tamil Nadu (an Indian state) – places that were once hotspots of artisanal cookware. They provide some design input making the products commercially viable and in the process help artisan communities become self-sustaining. “We use traditional materials like clay, cast iron and soapstone that retain heat well and are easy to use. The metals work for much longer than modern materials and the clay and soapstone wares create less waste for the landfills,” says Mathe, underlining principles of sustainability.
Rajshree Tiwari, a home chef who caters for small events says she switched to using a food processor for grinding spices and chutneys when the orders became too large to handle. “But there is something very special about the taste of hand pounded spices and chutneys made using a stone slab. When I cook for small groups, I use these traditional methods as much as possible,” says Tiwari, who still sources her stone grinders from her village in the India state of Uttar Pradesh.
Much like the slow food and farm to table movement across the world, the interest in traditional cookware stems from a desire to eat better, live sensibly and be more environmentally responsible. What sets it apart - and perhaps a notch above - is the fact that it’s sustaining and promoting crafts that were once on the edge of being forgotten.