The Museums That India Must Have: Kitchens
The quintessential Indian rasoi had distinct elements and character of its own.
And while we have all been busy obsessing over modular kitchens, the customary Indian kitchen has silently faded away into oblivion.
So why shouldn’t we celebrate International Museum Day with a wish for India to have its own culinary and kitchen museum? After all, cooking has a 5000-year-old history in India.
In the villages of India, women once walked to the bushland to collect dry wood and dried dung cakes. After smearing cow dung in kitchens to disinfect them, they would begin cooking for the day.
The Rasoi was the Woman’s Private Space
While the royal kitchens employed mostly male khansaamas and maharajahs; outside palaces, the women lorded over the 4” by 4” kitchen space they got in their houses.
It was Where the Families Sat Together to Eat
And since we Indians never liked our meals cold, we ate in the kitchen itself. Our rasoi doubled up as the dining area, (way before the modern open kitchen) where every member of the family sat cross legged – eating with their hands, straight out of the thali or the hygienic and disposable banana leaf or the saal tree leaf.
...But Mostly The Rasois Were Blackened in Soot
Whether it was grinding cereal from the chakki or using the okhli for pounding masalas, or squatting to use the chullah, cooking this way had its disadvantages.
How many millions of women have had to cook in soot-blackened kitchens, having spolit their postures twisted from years of cooking this way?
Nevertheless, these heated kitchens were also venues for creating indigenous recipes.
The Cooking and Utensils: Distinctly Indian
The woman’s treasure trove was the Masala Ka Dabba, which they would use to conjure up new aromas and flavour.
For centuries before the refrigerator was invented, the surahi or matka would be used to store cool water.
Traditionally, Indian kitchens were utilitarian, with all the dabbas stacked on display near where the woman sat, to use as and when required.
The Indian Rasoi and Its Unique Cooking Methods
1.Dum Cooking Using a Handi
The handi was used for cooking pulaus as well as tender meats under pressure or more colloquially, the Dum Phukt way. The edges of the Handi were sealed with a thick and single layer of dough, and its mouth was covered with a plate to prevent the steam from escaping.
In 1783, Nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah used Dum cooking during the construction of the Bara Imam Bara Mosque. Almost three centuries later, the Dum Style of cooking is still in vogue.
2. The Tandoor
The tandoor originated in Persia and came to India through the Arabs via Afghanistan. But the tandoori roti can be claimed to be an Indian staple now.
3. Tawa and Kadhai Cooking
The tawa is perhaps one of the most important implements in an Indian kitchen because we don’t bake our breads, we tawafy them.
A kadhai, or wok is perfect to cook at high temperatures. It is also employed in huge sizes to make our local street food.
4. Zammin doz
A hole was dug in the ground and ingredients covered with mud; the burnt charcoal placed over the kadhai would melt the food and make it incredibly tasty. The cooking took around 6 hours but it would be worth the wait.
5. The Idli Maker
The earliest mention of idli dates back to a 920 CE Kannada language work. And needless to say, the idli remains as popular today as it was back in those days.
The Metamorphosis of the Indian Kitchen
In 1913, stainless steel was produced for the first time. The alloy came to be used in kitchens, rich and poor across the world. Soon, copper and clay vessels were phased out and the health benefits that came with cooking in these were forgotten.
The pressure cooker empowered the woman of the 1970s, freeing her from the shackles of time-consuming cooking.
The Middle Class Kitchen’s Transformation
Middle class families had a limited budget for the upkeep of the house, and so, they mostly decorated the drawing room although there was no compromise on the kitchen’s cleanliness and hygiene.
The kitchens have since undergone a dramatic transformation. Cabinets now come in polished beechwood. Of course, kitchens are much more utilitarian these days, but in all this progress, have we lost a few things to modernity?
The Indian kitchen has so many elements worthy of being documented. And while this list is by no means exhaustive, it is an attempt to start a conversation about documenting our culinary culture.