“Are you serious?” my husband looked at me, amazed, as if I had asked for the most unusual thing in the world. I had just asked the waiter, at a fine dining restaurant, if I could take home the empty clay pot that contained the biryaani we had relished minutes ago. My husband had flatly refused to ask the waiter himself, suggesting that he’d buy one for me from the market instead. However, I wanted this biryaani pot because, apart from it being a reminder of the wonderful dinner we had just had, it would also be a good way to recycle.
My interest in clay pots began this summer while vacationing in India. It all started with some cold lassi – a traditional milk and yoghurt drink – served in clay tumblers. While most people would usually just discard the clay container afterwards, I brought it home with me to reuse, and have since been collecting earthenware.
The tradition of pottery in the Asian subcontinent is as old as human civilisation itself and is considered a sensual art form, identified with the feminine qualities of grace and delicacy. During early times, each village had its own potter, who held a respectable place in society because they made a myriad of articles used in the regular household. An example is the clay-made piggy bank that children used to have. This only had a one-way slot for coin insertion so that when the piggy bank was full, the custom was to smash it on the ground and retrieve the collected money.
The main use of clay pottery, however, was for making cooking vessels. These clay pots worked best for dishes that require cooking on a low heat for hours, like mutton curry, goats’ trotters, black lentil curry, etc. Hyderabad, India, is famous for its ‘dum ki biryaani’ that is slow cooked in a huge clay pot. In some parts of India and Bangladesh, there is a special, heavily-spiced fish curry that is cooked only in earthen cauldrons. In Pakistan, women prepare and store pickles in clay jars. Sweets like kheer – rice pudding – is also set, chilled and served in clay bowls.
Cooking in clay pots is a great way to add flavour and reduce fat in our diet. Unlike vessels of other materials, food cooked in clay pots is less likely to stick – thus reducing the need for more oils. The pot is always soaked in water for at least fifteen minutes before use so that it is saturated with water and because clay is a porous material, steam evaporates slowly when it is heated in the oven. During cooking, the food inside the clay pot releases liquid and cooks in its own juices. These juices remain sealed inside the pot until it is completely dry – which is around the time the food has cooked completely – hence adding to the flavour.
With the arrival of modern cooking vessels like non-stick pots, casseroles and pressure cookers, clay pots slowly disappeared from households. Besides, with the fast pace of today’s lifestyle, the slow cooking process in clay pots became quite an inconvenience.
However, it’s nice to see that efforts are being made to rediscover and revive the use of clay pots today, especially in high-end restaurants where food is served in earthenware. There are several advantages to bringing the ancient cooking vessel back: healthy food, being environmentally-friendly, a touch of tradition, jobs for potters and aesthetics (yes, food served in a clay pot is very appealing). In fact, it has gained so much popularity that some restaurants are giving decorative token clay pots for desserts! Finding food served in clay pots in India or Pakistan is common, but I am pleasantly surprised to find them here in the U.A.E – like biryaani, desserts and even tea!
I make an effort to use clay pots regularly because of the health benefits, added flavours and for being eco-friendly. Of course, another important factor is that I take a lot of food pictures for my blog and I know that serving them in traditional clay pots will make the presentation even better. Now, whenever we dine in a restaurant that serves in clay pots, I try to ask the staff if I can take the pot home, and they almost always agree. As a result, I am now the proud owner of six clay cups for tea, two clay bowls for sweets and one gorgeous handi or round-bellied clay pot in my collection – all of them complimentary tokens from restaurants! As much as I love cooking and serving food in them, family members and guests are equally delighted to experience eating out of a clay pot.
Nadia Masood lives in Dubai, UAE and writes about travel, food and photography on her website http://nadiamasood.com.